Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Red Hat Paradox

When Oracle announced its entrance into the general purpose operating system market, I was most surprised by the endorsements provided by Red Hat’s partners. AMD, Intel, IBM, NetApp, HP, Dell, and several others endorsed Oracle’s move into the space. On the surface, this endorsement would seem to indicate that Red Hat has done a poor job meeting the needs of these partners. If you dig a bit deeper, however, it is inevitable that any general purpose operating system company will eventually fail their partners and customers if they are successful in the market.

How to explain this paradox of failure through success? Let’s examine the economics of the general purpose operating system business. The goal is to sell as many copies of the OS while spending the least amount of money engineering the OS. The easiest approach to maximize sales while minimizing expense is to engineer a single, one-size-fits-all implementation of the OS targeted at the sector of the market that is willing to pay the most for such an OS. The benefit of this approach is that it is possible (with a bit of luck, some good engineering, and a bit of a lead at the beginning of the race) to pull off the holy grail of software and create a de facto “standard.” The downside is that no one gets what they really want.

The reason that no one gets what they want is because the OS becomes a huge compromise - the lowest common denominator across all requirements. Even mighty Microsoft struggles with this issue of attempting to serve all requirements with a single, one size fits all, product. The period between releases of products grows and grows. The amount of new features that distinguish the OS shrinks and shrinks. So much effort goes into simply trying to make all of the old programs and drivers continue to work with all of the new programs and drivers coming into the market that the OS schedule and features become casualties of this work. Another casualty is the relationship with your partners and customers.

When attempting to make everyone’s drivers and code work with a single release of the OS, no one’s drivers and code work really well. When the schedules and features slip, your partners’ businesses are impacted. Your customers planning schedules are impacted. No one is happy. Which explains why Red Hat appears to be a victim of its own success when all of its partners stand up to endorse a competitor such as Oracle.

So what is the answer? Well, I don’t think the answer is Oracle using the same technology and the same approach to the market and promising lower prices. Nor do I believe the answer is for Red Hat to simply “try harder.” Something needs to change. I believe the change will occur when pervasive virtualization technology splits the operating system into the separate categories of hardware OS and application OS. Then, the only standard that needs to be maintained is the virtual machine format. Each application can arrive as a virtual appliance with its own unique, tailored OS wrapped inside a standard virtual machine. All applications work seamlessly together on the same machine without the requirement for a general purpose, one-size-fits-all operating system.

The signposts of this change are already there if you care to look for them. VMware’s revenue and growth rate are off the charts. The hype surrounding Xen is deafening. Microsoft just announced they are opening up their virtualization spec in an attempt to avoid falling further behind VMware. And the virtual appliance hype has gone from non-existent to a continuous, ever louder thunder roll in a matter of only 9 months. And, finally, all of Red Hat’s partners stood up to endorse Oracle as a Red Hat competitor because they believe Red Hat should have done a better job serving them. It’s time for all of us to take responsibility for this problem and move to a better model. A model where everyone can have what they want, and the operating system providers can be successful without failing their customers or their partners.


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