Six months after becoming president and CEO of Linux vendor Red Hat, Jim Whitehurst was in Boston this week for the annual Red Hat Summit. The former COO of Delta Air Lines sat down with Jon Brodkin to discuss open source, a new patent settlement, and Red Hat's moves in virtualisation.
Six months on the job, how's it going so far?
It's been phenomenal. Coming from an industry where it was hard to figure out a business model that works, to a place like Red Hat that has a phenomenal business model, it's incredible. That said, there's a lot to do.
What are your top challenges over the next year or so?
We've got to keep the company focused, a lot of work to do to execute. This was a company that was tiny a few years ago and it's growing rapidly. Just being a lot more structured with who makes what decisions, how decisions are made and processes and systems. I like to say around the organization that people at Red Hat do amazing things in spite of our systems. It's certainly not because of them.
You have to push down and disperse decision-making and put in place processes and governance. That's not sexy stuff but this is the time when a lot of companies trip. They get to a certain size and they fall under their own weight because they're between being small and big. One of the reasons I'm here is to make sure we go through this transition well.
Can you recap what you talked about during your keynote at the Red Hat Summit?
The first part was talking about how we're the leaders of open source, we do hard things in open source, it's not just marketing to us. I talked about the patent settlement, the first time there has been a patent settlement consistent with the GPL [open source license].
On 11 June. Red Hat settled patent-infringement claims brought against it by Firestar Software and DataTern. According to Red Hat, the settlement protects Red Hat itself and the customers and developers using Red Hat's open source software. Tell me more about the settlement.
What was impactful and important about it was we not only protected ourselves and our customers, we protected all upstream and downstream use of the technology. A lot of times, not to pick on anyone in particular, but Novell in the Microsoft settlement didn't protect all their upstream and downstream users. We're not just protecting ourselves, we're protecting everyone who uses that technology.
Are patent disputes a common problem for you?
It's always one of the issues, how do you handle patents with open source, because of the necessity in open source to protect up and downstream. It's a complex set of legal issues. We generally don't run into it that much because open source is really good at working around patent issues. It doesn't take up a lot of my time.
The virtualisation market is dominated by VMware, but you guys expanded your virtualisation portfolio with a Linux-based hypervisor this week. What are your goals in virtualisation?
Virtualisation is half the operating system. Paul [Cormier, Red Hat president of products and technologies] would actually say virtualisation is the operating system in a lot of ways. We feel pretty strongly virtualisation needs to be pretty tightly integrated with the operating system.
VMware's the dominant player in an industry that's what, like 5 or 10% penetrated? And it's primarily in development and test scenarios, and primarily to reduce server sprawl.
We come from a different heritage. Our systems usually aren't running at 10%. Linux workloads are a lot higher. The value from our perspective is less around server consolidation and more about what new functionality or architectures can be enabled by virtualisation.
You talk about grid computing, cloud computing, whatever that is. The necessary enabler of that is Linux with integrated virtualisation. Because otherwise what are you going to run on a cloud?
How's middleware business and integration of JBoss going?
We bought JBoss a couple of years ago. I would say it ramped up slowly. We've integrated it. The most fundamental thing we did was we changed the business model. In our basic business model, we take community-developed software and make it consumable by the enterprise by creating fully supported, certified, tested, with the long support life we guarantee.
One of the issues with JBoss, it's ubiquitous in development and test. Everybody loves to use it, but often when it came time to develop something on JBoss it would actually be implemented on something else. Because in production people would say 'well, it's not supported.' In the last six months we went to the enterprise model of JBoss and we're seeing a lot of uptake. Initially that transition took a while but it is really firing on all cylinders now.
Do you come from an open source background?
No. I have an undergraduate degree in computer science and I've been using Fedora and before that other variants of Linux for many years. But I was chief operating officer at Delta Air Lines. I was a partner with the Boston Consulting Group, I come from a pretty buttoned-down corporate world.
So, you're not a typical tech geek?
I'm not a tech geek for a career, but if you ask the engineers I'm pretty geeky at home.
I've got computers all over the place, I always have, all over my house, my wife's always complaining at me. I'm always doing something bizarre on them, programming as a hobby. So I'm a tech geek. It was more of an avocation until now.
Do you guys use Windows at Red Hat?
No. All RHEL [Red Hat Enterprise Linux].
Are there any non-Red Hat technologies you use extensively?
We have some proprietary software for things like our financials. But for the most part we do our best to stay open source wherever we can. We run RHEL on the desktop and OpenOffice, we use JBoss. Our licensing costs are very, very low.