With its acquisition of Suse Linux in 2003, Novell set itself up as the chief commercial competitor to Red Hat Linux for the enterprise Linux market. Last week Red Hat struck back, this time bringing the competition to Novell's home court.
Novell has described itself as a "mixed source" company offering customers both open and proprietary products. Below a certain level of the application stack, Novell relies on open source technologies -- including Suse Linux and the JBoss application server -- backed with enterprise-class support. Higher up the stack the core of Novell's business remains its proprietary stack of networking and identity management software such as its eDirectory server.
Other companies -- most notable among them, Computer Associates (CA) -- have embraced a similar strategy. The idea is to cede to the open source community the development of product categories that are nondifferentiating or have become commodities, freeing the vendor to concentrate on products that are higher up the stack and that offer customers the most value.
The question is, where do you draw the line?
Novell chose open source to replace its OS and application server offerings. Computer Associates raised the bar a little further and open sourced its Ingres database. With the release of Red Hat Directory Server, Red Hat has raised the bar yet again, issuing a direct challenge to both CA and Novell in the process.
Red Hat Directory Server began life as the Netscape Directory Server, which Red Hat acquired from the Netscape Security Solutions division of AOL last September. It's a fully functional, enterprise-class LDAP directory server. Each instance of the directory scales to support millions of directory entries and thousands of queries per second, making it a viable alternative to market-leading commercial products such as eDirectory and Microsoft's Active Directory
The difference is that none of the competing products are open source -- not even Novell's. Red Hat has said it will release its directory source code under the GPL (General Public License). In addition, it will sponsor a Fedora Directory project designed to spur community-driven development of the product in much the same way the Fedora Linux project acts as a technology incubator for Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
That's great news for universities, research projects, and other budget-conscious environments that rely on free and open source software. Previously the only way to deploy a directory with open source was by using OpenLDAP, which, although functional, is difficult to manage and can't scale to large deployments. It's also good news for enterprise customers, who will be able to reduce costs on yet another layer of the application stack.
It might not be such good news for CA and Novell, however. Not only does Red Hat's move threaten to undercut profits in the directory server market, but it points to an area -- identity management -- where Red Hat will butt heads with both companies. Both CA and Novell have already positioned themselves as leaders in identity, a market seen as a current sweet spot for networking software vendors. Can Red Hat be far behind?
We'll have to wait and see who makes the next move. Red Hat has said it will open source more software from its portfolio of former Netscape products soon. Might CA, Novell, or some other vendor beat it to the punch? One thing is certain: Open source has begun its inevitable climb up the layers of the application stack. It will be interesting to see how far it goes.