Provider Profiles: Red Hat

Craig Sharp

Red Hat’s open source business process management (BPM) technology may be a new addition to the marketplace, but its history with open source software is a rich one.

Following the creation of the Linux kernel, the source of many of today’s open source operating systems, back in the 90s. Red Hat’s founder, Marc Ewing, took that kernel and from it developed what once was the company’s flagship product – the open source Red Hat Linux.

The project actually began life on campus at Carnegie Mellon University. Marc Ewing, the founder of the company and creator of Red Had Linux, spent a year and a half working on his new operating system before releasing it on October 20th1994. Digital distribution was of course non existant during that period, and so the product originally shipped in the back of a book - Matt Welsh's ‘Linux Installation and Getting Started’. The business and the platform continued in this way for a number of years, shipping Red Hat Linux with many Linux hobbyist magazines to build up the user base.

Red Hat president and CEO, Jim Whitehurst, shared this story as well as others with us ahead of their presentation at BPM Open House later this month.

"So this was back in 1994, after Linux had emerged, they started shipping the disc via numerous books and manuals. Over time we’ve discontinued the magazine and successfully built up the enterprise side of the business, the rest, as they say, is history."

Indulging my inner geek, I ask Jim about the company name, Red Hat. I find out that, rather than my assumption that the name is a clever reference to ‘White Hat’ and ‘Black Hat’ – both programming terms, it turns out the story is far simpler and yet somehow more satisfying: "The Red Hat name is actually based on one of the co-founders, Marc Ewing used to have a red lacrosse cap that he’d wear. Obviously he was really good with computers and in college people knew him for the hat – if they ever had computer trouble they’d say ‘go see the guy in the red hat’."

Betting the farm on open source enterprise

The company have enjoyed a level of success that many similar open source vendors can only dream of. Floated on the New York stock exchange back in 1999, Red Hat holds the distinction of also becoming the first billion-dollar open source software company in 2012. This was largely down to what many saw initially as a gamble – foregoing the home consumer market to take their open source platforms into the enterprise space.

In 2004, Red Hat Linux became Fedora when the company made the decision to focus on the enterprise market, and that is when Red Hat Enterprise Linux began to take shape. Fedora, is still available, and is continuously developed by their dedicated open source community.

"Red Hat has seen several seasons of change throughout its history. Most notably was the decision to re-orient our business away from the consumer desktop to focus on the enterprise. At the time, open source software had very little--if any--footprint in the enterprise. Linux was viewed by many as a hobbyist platform. Changing our business model was not only a bet-the-farm decision for Red Hat, but also for our early customers who shared our vision and believed that open source could in fact compete against proprietary software in the enterprise market."

"Since then, Red Hat has continued this pursuit as it has expanded its business through community development, as well as acquisitions like JBoss (middleware) and Gluster (storage). Along the way, we became the first open source company to surpass one billion dollars in annual revenue."

Every cloud has a golden lining

One external contributing factor to Red Hat’s continued success and stability, has been the rise of the cloud and the accompanying growth in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions within the enterprise space. With Red Hat’s earliest enterprise offering being open source server environments, many of today’s expanding server farms were already life-long customers using either the Linux platform or the more modern Java-based solution, Red Hat JBoss Middleware.

"It’s been a great thing for us. So many Software-as-a-Service companies, like to name one, are Red Hat customers. If you look at the traditional data center, roughly half the applications are on Windows and roughly half are on Linux. However in software as a service companies or clouds, it’s around 90% Linux, or more recently, Red Hat JBoss solutions."

While the company has come a long way from it’s college campus heyday, Jim believes that the culture survives today, and even admits to being a little surprised at the difference between this and the usual corporate setting when he first joined the company back in 2008.

Fail fast, then carry on

"Many of the cultural aspects of open source are firmly engrained within the company. When I first got here from Delta Airlines, I thought this place was chaos. We don’t have a lot of manuals here, that’s not how we do things. We expect people to figure it out and try new things, and we make sure to celebrate those people who embrace it and try those new things. One of the mantras in traditional open source is release early, release often. Internally we call that ‘fail fast’, we like to give people a lot of latitude to try new things and if they fail that’s okay because you’ll learn something from that. We just try to make sure people fail fast, learn and keep moving forward."

"We’re absolutely passionate about open source, it drives the culture. Being a purpose-based company, having that meaning, it fosters extraordinary levels of passion that you don’t see in most companies."

"I’d argue that we’re very collaborative, but there’s also an edge – much like Linux founder, Linus Torvalds, we’re painfully open and honest with one another, if it’s a terrible idea we’ll say we think it’s a terrible idea. So there’s that honesty, it’s a positive thing and makes for very close collaboration during development."

Every day we look for new ways to deliver value to our customers. This reflects one of the the core elements of our mission statement. The rate at which technology is changing today is unprecedented, and our customers trust us and rely on us to help meet their needs in this changing environment--in an open, responsive, and innovative manner.