How Red Hat can catch the developer train

Developers are embracing a range of open source technologies, virtually none supported or sold by Red Hat. Can the open source giant recover?

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More likely, given the valuations for developer-rich companies, is a partnership. Here Red Hat has been active, to a degree. Red Hat, for example, has been strengthening its relationship with Hortonworks, building out joint solutions and go-to-market strategies.

But this relationship omits the Holy Grail: distribution through Red Hat Enterprise Linux and a product SKU that Red Hat's sales force will push directly and through its channel.

The problem is that Red Hat, like any good company, must focus, and its sales force, not surprisingly, has never been adept at selling others' technology, given that it has its hands full managing the burgeoning portfolio of Red Hat technologies, including everything from JBoss middleware to virtualization technologies (RHEV) and now cloud.

What may be reasonable middle ground

It may be a bridge too far to expect Red Hat to sell others' technology. But it shouldn't be too much to expect Red Hat to help distribute it. The question is how, because getting into a co-marketing arrangement with RHEL is very difficult.

Sometimes it happens and the result is spectacular. Take Docker, for example. Docker is one area where Red Hat discerned developer interest and partnered early and deep both with the company and the technology. Red Hat announced a container certification program around the last Red Hat Summit in March and OpenShift has used Docker extensively.

Speaking of OpenShift, this is another example of a developer-centric Red Hat offering. While OpenShift started slowly, I've heard from a number of sources that OpenShift adoption is booming now, fed by a steady stream of developers.

All this is good and shows that Red Hat recognizes where it's weak and is taking steps to remedy the problem. But more is needed, and that more probably comes back to its primary platform: Linux.

In the past, Red Hat tried to find ways to promote other open source solutions without actually selling them itself, Red Hat Exchange being a prominent, if unsuccessful, example. More recently, Red Hat introduced Software Collections as a way to loosely couple fast-moving developer favorites like Ruby and MySQL with slower-moving enterprise favorites like RHEL.

Red Hat's community operating system

It's a good start, but it still treats these developer technologies like arms' length, second-class Red Hat citizens (somewhat akin to Microsoft embracing open source but only through a separate subsidiary, Microsoft Open Technologies). As I noted before, getting into RHEL is brutally hard.

It might also be unnecessary --at first.

A better strategy might be to create a truly first class developer-oriented big data stack on CentOS. CentOS has the ability to offer both compatibility with the RHEL ecosystem and to provide more developer-friendly stacks on top, delivered through CentOS Special Interest Groups.

Another great Red Hat platform is Project Atomic, a new community project to develop technologies for creating lightweight Linux container hosts. As described by Red Hat engineer Colin Walters, Atomic "could evolve the application from something that is installed to something that is communicated," which, in turn, "could drive a further, and much needed, decomposition of the operating system layer into something lighter-weight, easier to manage, and less restrictive."

Atomic, then, has real potential to steal adoption from Ubuntu in AWS if done right.

Community now, money later

Whether we're talking CentOS or Atomic, however, it's clear that Red Hat's developer outreach probably doesn't begin with RHEL, even if it ends up there. Developers want to get productive, fast. Forcing them into a commercial relationship is the wrong way to achieve this. Such developer technologies need to be exceptional in their own right, not a thinly veiled appetizer for "real" products like RHEL or RHEV.

As Red Hat embraces and develops community-focused technologies like Atomic, CentOS, and OpenShift, then works with leading, complementary open source projects to ensure they get first-class treatment on Red Hat's platforms, Red Hat will appeal to the developers that crown technology winners even as it provides a clear path for that developer love to translate into Operations cash.

This helps Red Hat by making it relevant to developers again. It also helps such projects by giving them access to Red Hat's distribution. Equally important, the more Red Hat and these projects and companies work together on developer outreach, the easier it becomes to take the next step and create commercial strategies together.

This story, "How Red Hat can catch the developer train," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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