Red Hat's open source expertise is no guarantee of cloud success

Red Hat faces significant obstacles in bringing open source to enterprise clouds, but at least one factor works in its favor: Docker

Red Hat has a lot to be proud of as one of the few publicly traded companies that made open source software a way of life from the outset.

Now a blog post by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst flaunts the company's ambitions to rule the enterprise cloud world, as the company finds itself "in the midst of a major shift from client-server to cloud-mobile."

"We're staring at a huge opportunity," says Whitehurst, "the chance to become the leader in enterprise cloud, much like we are the leader in enterprise open source. The competition is fierce, and companies will have several choices for their cloud needs. But the prize is the chance to establish open source as the default choice of this next era, and to position Red Hat as the provider of choice for enterprises' entire cloud infrastructure."

Red Hat can point to many achievements as proof of its tip-top industry position; 12 consecutive years of growth is nothing to sneeze at. This year alone, the company's added impressive expertise and reached out to new audiences through its acquisitions of mobile app dev and back-end service provider FeedHenry and OpenStack company eNovance.

But Whitehurst's post reveals a few faulty assumptions about the enterprise cloud market -- and Red Hat's possible place in it.

The deck may be stacked against OpenStack

Whitehurst's first assumption is that the enterprise cloud will most likely be some form of hybrid cloud. On top of that is the assumption that projects like OpenStack can fuel one or both sides of that equation. To that end, Red Hat wants to make OpenStack into a universal cloud product, in the same way that Linux was universalized as a solution for the world of aging, legacy, and proprietary Unix systems.

The problem: The real-world market for OpenStack has proven to be a good deal smaller and more focused than it originally seemed, in no small part due to its complexity. Ubuntu has been chasing the same rainbows, but it has concentrated on delivering OpenStack to the people who make the most use of it -- telcos and service providers -- rather than generic data centers or enterprise IT users.

Consequently, Red Hat has to compete not only with those providing OpenStack as an easy-to-use product, but with those providing it as an easier-to-use service (such as Mirantis and HP) -- as well as with the proprietary hybrid cloud providers like VMware and Microsoft, which are amping up their games.

Open source? Old news

Whitehurst's statement about "establish[ing] open source as the default choice of this next era" seems less a bold mission statement than a simple declaration of fact. Open source has been the standard for any new software technology for some time now. Even longtime proprietary stalwarts like Microsoft have received the memo and embraced open source -- to a point.

In fact, we may well be living in a post-open source world (as Matt Asay put it), where even licensing is becoming an afterthought. There's no question Red Hat has been a major force in enterprise IT's acceptance of open source, but concerns now revolve around the governance, organization, and management of projects.

While Red Hat's place in the "ops" side of the  data center isn't in question, its ties with developers are arguably weaker. The vast majority of technologies taken up by the new generation of developers -- from Chef/Puppet to MongoDB to Node.js -- aren't currently a significant part of Red Hat's big-name partnerships.

Red Hat's Docker maneuver

The sole exception is Docker, which may prove a saving grace if Red Hat executes on its promise. Red Hat has made application-containerization technology a key part of the latest revisions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and has tentative plans to make the next generations of RHEL even more Docker-centric. This is a wise move, since containerized apps are far easier to manipulate than whole VMs (which Amazon has also picked up on).

However, there's a slew of stiff competition coming down the pike. The CoreOS project may have already beaten Red Hat to creating a container-driven Linux that stands a good chance of becoming part of the "next-generation data center" Red Hat has laid claim to.

Red Hat is not alone in believing cloud and mobile are the future. Forrester analyst Dave Bartoletti calls it "the age of the customer" and claims that the era demands "a shift in focus from data center optimization -- squeezing every drop of efficiency out of the data center (which is still important) -- to customer experiences."

There's no question Red Hat is a wizard of the data center, but if Bartoletti's observation holds true, it will need to deliver customer-centric satisfaction -- perhaps by way of acquisitions like FeedHenry.

The culture of open source that allowed Red Hat to ascend to its current heights also provides customers with choices beyond Red Hat. The company seems aware of this, but it remains to be seen whether it can do something about it in the long run.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.