Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst: Open Source Market Is 'Mind-Bending'

Jim Whitehurst took the reigns at Red Hat in 2007. Since then, the Raleigh, N.C.-based company has become the first billion-dollar open-source software vendor. Under Whitehurst's management, Red Hat greatly diversified the open-source products it offers business customers beyond its well-known Linux distribution and built a vibrant channel.

After delivering a keynote at the 2015 Red Hat Partner Conference in Orlando, Fla., last week, Red Hat's CEO took some time to talk to CRN about the future of the open-source market, emerging technologies like OpenStack, OpenShift and Docker, and how partners can sell those technologies as enterprise-grade products.

CRN: How's the first day of the 2015 Red Hat Partner Conference going?

[Related: Red Hat To Partners: Build Open-Source Practice Fit For Enterprise]

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JW: I think it's been great. We have a lot of interest. We had tremendous growth with our partners last year and we have a lot of exciting things around OpenStack and containers and OpenShift. So a lot of excitement and a lot of optimism for this year.

CRN: Red Hat executives and partners have told me how excited they are about those products, which offer your customers an entry point into some of the hottest technologies. What would you say is the larger theme this week? Is it about embracing open-source? What are you trying to convey to your partners moving forward with those new products, like the latest Red Hat Enterprise Linux that integrates support for containers?

JW: The broader theme is that we've kind of gone through a transition where innovation is happening first in open-source, and so building capability around open-source is going to be critical to serve customer needs.

Going back just five years ago, open-source was all about offering cheaper alternatives to proprietary software. Today, open-source is primarily about faster innovation. So if you're thinking about doing any type of a scale-out infrastructure, it's probably going to be open-source. If you're looking at DevOps, it's going to be open-source. If you're going to do anything with big data, it's going to be open-source.

CRN: What are the implications of this new paradigm?

JW: I think the broader channel community has to have a point of view in offerings related to open-source, and obviously, we're the leader in open-source, and so we're able to talk about things like OpenStack or PaaS or containers. So a lot of the theme has been about the things we're doing to lead next-generation infrastructure rather than, we're the cheaper version of Windows, right?

CRN: So you mentioned these three technologies: OpenStack for the IaaS layer, OpenShift, which is Red Hat's take on Platform-as-a-Service, and the container-tech revolution being driven primarily by Docker. Around all these technologies, what would you say is the greater unified message you want to convey to partners about bringing them to market?

JW: The message is these are major innovations that are coming out of open-source and what we are doing is making them consumable in a safe way for end customers. And so, we bring these solutions in a way that you get a backstop of support around them -- that fits into their broader IT architectures. Part of our role is to curate the hundreds of thousands of open-source projects. What we believe are the best communities and apps available to the enterprise are the ones we bring to market, and we do it with support and reliability and other things you would expect.

So when we talk about containers, we talk about, here's how, if a customer wants to implement containers, you can offer solutions to help them do that. And when we want to talk about OpenStack, well, here's how you can offer an OpenStack solution in a supported way to run production applications. Here's how you can actually deliver products and services around DevOps with our OpenShift and PaaS offerings.

It's literally, how do you take these cool, sexy things that people are talking about, and be able to implement them with real products, with a real company behind them, with all of the downstream lifecycle management and all of the things you would expect behind an enterprise-class product?

That's what we go and talk about, and so, I think partners are really excited, because they get asked about things like containers all the time. But what are they looking to sell? Well, we actually now have things they can go sell, to say, "oh, you want to implement containers, I can bring you a solution to do that." There's a lot of things people are buzzing about. We actually have tangible ... products that can let our partners go out and meet our customers' needs.

CRN: A lot of these products have come to market or significantly advanced over the past year, and this is your first opportunity to showcase them to your partners en masse. By virtue of being Red Hat partners, they're probably further along in the open-source learning curve than others, but what are you hearing from them in terms of their comfort level with these new technologies?

JW: They're excited about the offerings. I would say primarily the learning curve is around things like OpenStack and OpenShift, the capabilities that they need to develop in order to be able to confidently implement these for their customers. And so, again, our partners need to invest now to build, for instance, OpenStack skills and OpenShift skills, so as their customers over the next year, 18 months, say, "Hey, I want to do this," they'll be ready to go.

It's a little bit, I think with some partners, the thinking is, "If I don't see the demand now, I'll wait till I see it to develop the capabilities." But if you wait till that happens, then it's kind of too late to develop the capability at that time. So it's kind of getting that right sequencing.

The good news, especially around containers and OpenStack and OpenShift, [is that] there's already so much buzz and interest among customers that I think in general, a lot of the conversations are not about, "Should I scale up," but, "How do I scale up, and how fast should I scale up, because I'm seeing demand?" So that's probably the best news out of the conference -- people see it and they're investing into it.

CRN: That's interesting, because so often vendors try to convince their partner communities that they need to embrace new technologies and adopt new platforms, and the partners are sometimes hesitant, because they are doing what they've always done and what has always worked well for them. But the argument is probably a lot more convincing when it's coming from downstream, from the customers. Is that making it easier for Red Hat to make the case?

JW: I think it is two things. Yeah, they are hearing it from the customers. And the other thing [is], it's not Red Hat saying, "Ooh, take mine, take mine, I have this great container technology!" It's about people reading about container technology and they're excited about Docker and they're saying, "I want Docker." And what Red Hat is doing is offering an enterprise-class solution that allows our partners to address that.

So it's not that we're convincing people or necessarily trying to generate demand for Red Hat. A lot of what we're trying to do is say, "We can help you meet demand for these open-source technologies that you are being asked about."

CRN: That's almost counterintuitive as a business strategy.

JW: I think a lot of vendors, when they write their own stuff, they have to go to their channel and say, go push this for me, where this is a little bit of the reverse. The demand is already out there. These are open-source projects that everybody knows about. It's more, "Let us help you offer solutions in those categories."

And this is the mind-bending part about open-source -- it's already been developed, it's out there, leading-edge companies are using it. What we're doing is saying, it's out there, it works, Kubernetes orchestrates stuff for Google, it probably does scale a little bit, right? What we're doing is offering it in a form that a traditional enterprise can consume working with their partners.

And so, we are less out there trying to validate these solutions to meet a problem, which is what traditional vendors are doing when they write something. We are much more saying these solutions clearly solve problems and they are doing it for leading-edge companies today. We offer versions that are consumable for traditional enterprise. It's very much, not just solve the problem, it is, "Here's how we can help you solve a problem that we know is there, using a technology that we know is the right technology." That's the power of user-driven innovation.

CRN: I'm sure in Orlando you're talking to a lot of channel partners. Is there anything you're learning from them that's surprising you? Hearing from them that you didn't expect?

JW: I am amazed at how fast people are moving toward solutions around containers. That really just leapt on the scene in the last 18 months, and the number of partners I've had who've said, "Look, our customers want to move to containers, we need to talk about what we're doing with OpenShift and RHAL and platform," and those types of things. I'm amazed at how fast our partners are already being asked about containers and need to offer platforms to run containers at scale.

CRN: Is that because the developer community is craving them for their portability and agility?

JW: Probably. But I think it's more than just the developer community. I think for Ops, it's a way to solve a whole bunch of operating problems long-term as well, in terms of just being able to more easily migrate applications, get better density, et cetera, et cetera. The reason you're seeing so much interest around containers is, it's great for developers, but it's also great for Ops, and it's rare that you have those two people finding something that works great for them both.

CRN: So, I guess it's a true DevOps platform?

JW: It really is. It makes developers' lives easier, but it also makes operators lives easier. And that's a rare combination.

CRN: Is there anything else you think is important to convey about where Red Hat wants to take its partners?

JW: We've said this for years. Every year, over the last seven years, we've grown our share of business that we've done with partners. We are very committed to continuing that trend. We've been growing quickly and our partners have also seen very nice growth working with Red Hat, and we are very committed to continuing that going forward.

In the last year, we were 68 percent channel, and we certainly hope and expect that will continue to expand this year. It really is part of the long-term strategic thrust. It's not like we just started that a year ago. It's been seven years now. We've been in the enterprise a long time before a lot of these cool, sexy new technologies. Certainly with Linux and with JBoss, we're trying to bring these as a set of solutions that allow a migration path.

We recognize our customers are asking our partners, help me add this functionality, don't just "rip and replace." We're very focused on that in our portfolio. It's not like we're just coming in and saying, "Ooh, here's OpenStack!" We actually come in and say, "Well, there are traditional workloads, we can offer the same virtualization and operating system layer across your, say, SAP workloads, all the way through to OpenStack. We have management tools that work across that, we have storage offerings that work across those worlds." So not only do we offer some of the greatest technologies. We try to be really thoughtful and do it in a way that can help enterprises on-ramp to the new technology.

Most companies don't want to throw out the massive investments they've made, and so yes, we're bringing new technology, but I think part of what Red Hat does is do it with a vision that makes it possible for enterprises to on-ramp. I think that's a much easier, better message, and it's the right message for our partners to be able to help our customers take advantage of the power of cloud without isolating or obsoleting what they've done to date. I do think it's a good, easy message for our partners to offer their customers. To say, hey, you want to take advantage of this cool, new technology. You can do it, but you can do it in a smooth-migration way.