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Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst: How Open Source Stopped Being 'Scary'

Mitch Wagner
2/13/2019
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Jim Whitehurst had a nice job as chief operating officer of Delta Airlines in 2008, when he switched career tracks to take a position as CEO of Red Hat. Since then, he's been at the forefront of a historical shift in the technology industry, as open source has made the transition from maverick and dangerous -- a "scary, cult-like thing," in Whitehurst's own words -- to mainstream.

Nothing makes mainstream business sit up and take notice like money, and by that measure, Red Hat Inc. (NYSE: RHT) has turned the business world upside down not once but at least twice. The company went public in 1999 for a market cap of nearly $5 billion a day after its debut.

Last year, IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) announced its pending acquisition of Red Hat for $34 billion, which would see Red Hat continue to operate as an independent business unit under the Red Hat umbrella, with Whitehurst remaining in charge. (See How Red Hat Could Give IBM's Telco Strategy a New Lease of Life and IBM-Red Hat: A Crazy Plan That Might Work.)

We talked with Whitehurst one-on-one about how open source became mainstream, what that means to organizations that adopt it, and the future of Red Hat's open source mission under IBM's stewardship.

Continue on to see what Whitehurst had to say, edited lightly for readability.

I kicked off the discussion by asking how open source moved from outsider to the mainstream of software development...

Whitehurst: The nexus of innovation has moved from proprietary software to open source. There are a lot of things that led to that. A large part is that the big Web 2.0 companies, which are on the leading edge of a lot of innovation, developed their infrastructure in open source. If you look at big data, if you look at AI and machine learning, if you look at anything around DevOps, all those innovations are happening in open source.

Google and Facebook and Amazon and LinkedIn etc., solve problems for themselves. They're not building software with a sale in mind, and so they're happy to give it away and have other people help, because it makes their construction run better, or gets features out on timeline faster.

Red Hat's Jim Whitehurst
Red Hat's Jim Whitehurst


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Hadoop and all this stuff around big data started off with Google having had this problem of indexing the World Wide Web. Google developed Bigtable, and wrote an article about it. Yahoo said, "Wow, we have a similar problem," and started Hadoop. Yahoo open sourced it, and out of that built this whole big data movement.

It started off with a problem a web company had, and then vendors have swooped in and said, "How do we apply that to other use cases?" And now you have banks using Hadoop for fraud detection.

Similarly, Kubernetes was developed solving a Google problem of container management, and now vendors have swept in and said, "Well, that's relevant to other people."

Also, open source has become important to recruitment. I hear over and over again from our large customers, "You have to help me convince my legal department that our developers need to be able to contribute to open source projects, because if they can't, I can't hire them."

Your GitHub account and your contributions to open source projects become core parts of your resume.

Ten years ago, open source was about creating open source alternatives to traditional pieces of software. Linux looks a lot like Unix. The JBoss application server looks a lot like WebSphere and WebLogic. MySQL and PostgreSQL take on a traditional database. LibreOffice looks like Microsoft Office. We used to call it "commoditization of technology." We were trying to make open source alternatives to traditional software.

Then open source went from, "Let me make an open source alternative" to actually driving the pace of innovation. There are not proprietary alternatives to Hadoop that Hadoop was copying. That was new functionality that was needed.

I see this all the time with customers. We used to go in and talk about the feeds and speeds of our products versus proprietary ones. Now the conversations are very much about future technology, "How am I going to run big data workloads in a hybrid cloud? "What's the roadmap for Kubernetes to ultimately be able to help me do that?"

Open source, in CIOs' minds, has gone from being "Oh, this is something my purchasing people and engineers do to save money or because they like it," to, "Oh my God, I cannot innovate without open source. I certainly can't build a developer toolchain that's going to be effective, efficient and fast without using open source. I can't do big data or analytics or machine learning, any of that, without using open source."

Open source has now gone from being this kind of scary, cult-like thing, to the only way to do innovation in a whole bunch of categories. As soon as that happened, that's the blip when all of a sudden it became truly mainstream, because it was no longer, "Oh, this is interesting to my developers, and they can go play around with it," to, "This is mission critical to the business, because if I go to my CIO and say, 'I don't have a big data strategy or an AI strategy,' I'll lose my job, and I can't have an AI strategy without contributing to open source."

LR: How does the prevalence of open source change how business and IT is done?

Whitehurst: It pretty radically disrupts the traditional IT model in multiple ways. If you thought about a CIO 20 years ago, much of what you were doing is you were picking partners and you were integrating these boxed package solutions. So, a lot of what you had to do was say, "Well, am I picking the right partner, and am I going to trust that they're going to be able to support me?" If you look to how most markets developed then, you would have two or three significant players in a category. (See Not Business as Usual: Open Source Changes IT Operations.)

So, let's look at databases. You had Oracle, you had [IBM] DB2. Look at ERP systems. You had SAP, you have the Siebel stuff that Oracle bought.

Next page: Where's the throat you can choke?

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