Open Source

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

In open source, it's unclear where the vendors are. So it's not about, "Let me choose vendors that I trust and trust them to make technology decisions." A lot of these things are not built with an enterprise sale in mind, so you're not just in the business of building and maintaining a set of partnerships. You actually have to wade into the technology itself. Also, you need to be careful what technologies you pick, because open source at a technology level tends to have a winner take all outcome. Yes, there's BSD out there, but when you think about an open source operating system, it's Linux.

If you look at some of the big data systems out there, it's Hadoop and the Hadoop ecosystem. If you look now at orchestration, three years ago there was Mesos and and Kubernetes and Docker Swarm. Now it's just Kubernetes.

You typically have single category winners. It's no longer like it was, where you could say, "Oh, I'm going to buy from IBM, and even if it didn't work well I'd be able to get them to support me for ten years because that's part of the relationship. And that's why I buy from IBM -- or Microsoft or Oracle." Now you're a little bit more out there. IT requires getting more involved in the technology.

For vendors it's pretty daunting. You are in the business of figuring out where the world is going, writing intellectual property to get there, and then selling that IP. Now you start seeing more and more of the IP is open, you have to get much more thoughtful around what is the appropriate business model is, depending on where you are in the stack. Do you embrace open source? Do you say, "Well, I'm going to take open source in these areas, but proprietary makes sense in these areas"? If you're going to do open source, what does that look like? What does that mean? Most of the software is not written for an enterprise and an enterprise lifecycle in mind. This leads to downstream questions about long-term support, security and all these other things. It really does pretty significantly upend the traditional software model.

This is an assertion without a lot of proof behind it, but I would argue public cloud in its current form only exists because of open source. (See How Open Source Has Turned the Software Industry Upside-Down.)

Look at most of what Amazon does. They're delivering open source software to enterprises and they package it in different ways. If Amazon was just standing up something, say Microsoft Windows and Oracle databases, it's unclear if the value proposition would be particularly compelling.

I pick on Amazon, but this is true of Google and Microsoft, too. What they've done is they expose a whole lot of open source functionality in a pretty easy way. So, when you go to Amazon, you're generally spinning up some version of Linux. If you're using a database with Amazon, you may be using RDS, which is based on open source components.

Imagine a public cloud where all the software was just proprietary components. It's hard to imagine how that would look and work.

LR: Why would that be problematic?

What value would Amazon be bringing if they were just delivering Windows and Office or whatever else to an enterprise? They are able to offer an economic infrastructure solution because they are using open source components. They're able to offer an economic database because they're not paying for Oracle licenses. They're basically using free software to do that. They're able to offer economic AI services or big data services because, again, they're cutting out the vendors. They're using open source projects to be able to do that.

A big part of Amazon's value proposition is that it distributes open source functionality in a relatively consumable, easy way.

LR: Can open source actually make business more humane, or even improve society?

Whitehurst: Yes, I think so in some ways.

We've had an economy for generations built on stuff, and stuff, by definition, is scarce. I have a pen, it costs money to make that pen. I will sell you that pen or not, or a desk, or whatever it is. When information was first developed or first contained into as a potential product, the fact that it could be freely copied was seen as a bug, and so we use copyright and patents to protect IP to make it scarce, with the logic that if it's not scarce, people won't have the incentive to make stuff. There is logic and value in that view if you are an individual writer of software. It's hard to see how you necessarily say, "Oh, I'm going to write this and give it away, and how do I make money on it?"

Getting people to realize that information can be abundant and figuring out the best way to more thoughtfully think about that can add a ton of value because you will see much more sharing.

Google and Facebook often have developers contributing to the same open source projects that help them do their infrastructure better, yet at the product market level, they fight like cats and dogs.

So in another industry, in pharmaceuticals for example, how do you decide as an industry, "Well, here's a set of things where we're going to fight like cats and dogs about, because that's where we are competitors and we patent this and we protect that. But on a different level, how do we share in a way that makes us all better off, in the same way that Google and Facebook are able to."

The mere fact that open source is acceptable is starting to get more businesses thinking about it. I've had these conversations in healthcare; I've had them in education, financial services, where I started thinking about the boundaries of IT.

I think there's a growing recognition that sharing has some values and there are some models to do it in a structured way that can really make sense.

Next page: Will IBM spoil Red Hat?

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