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"Time to Change"

Dec 14, 2007, 23:30 (16 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

If there's one thing that's always been true about Red Hat--they've always had an uncanny ability to stay on message with a single voice. "Uncanny" not in the X-Men sense, but more along the lines of "pain-in-the-butt-to-get-information-from" sense.

Which is an exaggeration, to some extent. Red Hat never stonewalled anything with me or any other reporter I know of, and I know if I need a question answered, I can pick up the phone and make a couple of calls to get what I need. Conversely, I know the answer will be the same no matter who I call, so calling more than one person at Red Hat for comment can be a superfluous action.

I bear no ill will towards Red Hat for the way they handle their PR and marketing--it's a corporate thing, and they really aren't arrogant about it. They've just decided to make sure they're putting out a unified message.

Until, it seems, recently. Now I'm not sure they know what their message is. Worse, there are growing signs that the rest of the IT industry is in the same boat as I am.

The most overt sign of trouble came earlier this month when Red Hat VP Scott Crenshaw shot an uncharacteristically hostile shot across the bow of the SS Novell. Speaking at the London launch event for the company's new Red Hat Enterprise Messaging, Real Time, Grid (MRG), Crenshaw told the media that Novell's real time offering, SUSE Linux Enterprise Real Time (SLERT), was essentially a rip off of Red Hat's real-time work.

That, at least, is how the media interpreted it. Looking at the quotes from Crenshaw again, it actually looked like he was not irked so much by the fact that Red Hat's code was in SLERT as the implication that Novell has not made contributions of its own to Red Hat's real-time work, thus creating a separate iteration of a real-time kernel that, according to Crenshaw, was not as stable as MRG. Naturally, some in the media forgot the whole "open source" thing, and assumed there was some sort of outright theft going on.

My problem is not who's in the right regarding this incident--in fact, Jonathan Corbet has an excellent analysis of both parties' contributions towards real time in Linux over on LinuxWorld--my problem was why this had to be said at all. This kind of sniping is what you might expect on a development mailing list, not at a very public media event.

It didn't hurt Novell, because they were first to market with their real-time offering anyway. It didn't help Red Hat, because nearly everyone who heard these comments immediately thought "sour grapes" or, worse, "threatened company in a weaker position." It certainly didn't help open source as a whole, since such sniping about open development only provides more FUD ammunition to those who follow the proprietary way.

It was weird. And coming from the normally very composed Red Hat, doubly so.

It's not just this lowly pundit who's noted trouble afoot. Just this week, three financial analysts, each downgraded their estimate on Red Hat, for different reasons. Katherine Egbert from Jefferies & Co. cited growing competition from virtualized servers as a concern, while Kirk Materne from Bank of America had doubts regarding the ability of Red Hat's JBoss division to get traction. Trip Chowdhry, of Global Equities Research also has problems with the JBoss side of the house, calling it "a complete failure."

Let's all agree that analyst's opinions are a dime a dozen, and not everything they say can be taken as gospel. Still, three in a week is enough to raise an eyebrow.

Is something wrong? If there is, I get the sense that it's more of a re-grouping within the Red Hat walls so they can contend with the new market position of the Novell/Microsoft team, not to mention the sudden new buzz surrounding Linux on low-end PCs. Certainly Red Hat is still the commercial Linux leader, but there's no getting around the fact that Novell has stopped just short of falling off the business cliff and there's evidence they're clawing their way slowly back onto solid ground. Linux' sudden popularity on the desktop has to be giving Red Hat a bit of pause, since this is an area that Red Hat has never really pursued.

When new conflicts come at you from different directions, you readjust your stance to compensate. You might even stumble a bit while you're compensating. I think that's what we're seeing now: Red Hat is shifting its strategy, and while it's doing so, little deviations in the corporate direction are showing up. The net result: we're seeing a Red Hat that's distracted, and off its game a bit.

Can they recover? Yes, probably, though given the time of year, don't look for any major changes until after the end of the year. Perhaps when they finally release that delayed online desktop product. Until then, we can expect to see some interesting noises as Red Hat seeks to find its new message and its new voice.