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Is Red Hat doing enough for its customers?

Marc Fleury's departure throws key issues into stark relief

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Is Red Hat doing enough to reassure its customers that it remains focused on what it does and can stay ahead of its growing number of competitors? That's the question the open source Linux subscription company ought to be asking itself -- but is it?

We noted just a few weeks ago that Red Hat is coming under siege. Last October, Oracle decided to emulate Red Hat's business model by reselling Red Hat Linux and its eponymous database as a package, just as Red Hat (RH) sells both support for Enterprise Linux and JBoss' software stack, following its acquisition of the middleware vendor earlier in 2006.

More recently, Sun decided to throw down the gauntlet by announcing that a support package that makes open source Solaris half as expensive to run as RH's Linux. And just a few days ago, Marc Fleury, once boss of JBoss and now integrated into RH, quit the company.

So what's going on?

Taking the most recent event first, what's clear is that Fleury, known for his outspokenness including an outburst against Red Hat, was becoming frustrated with the pace of events inside his new company. You could read between the lines of an interview he gave eWeek, even before he quit, when he said: "I have no power. This is not my company. I have sold my company. So me personally, I am not wagging the dog. I'm irrelevant in this equation."

He then went on to express his disappointment over the fact that RH was focused much more on developing for the Enterprise Linux OS than on the JBoss middleware. He said: "The R&D really hasn't benefited from a huge investment for which I was hoping and was the main reason I went to Red Hat."

Shortly before Fleury formally quit, RH issued this statement: "Marc Fleury has had a new addition to his young family. Since much time in the past few years has been focused on growing the JBoss business, he feels it's now time to take a paternity leave and spend time with his family. We look forward to Marc's return in a few months."

The RH statement issued when he finally went was bland in the extreme -- as these things usually are, and spoke only of mutual satisfaction and the like.

RH's encirclement by the likes of Sun and Oracle, added to the departure of Fleury -- not to mention the insights he's provided into what's going on inside the software house, suggest that the company must be suffering.

But do we care that much about the company, as long as its customers carry on paying for Enterprise Linux subscriptions and for JBoss' software, whose acquisition is expected to add some $27 million to RH's bottom line when it declares its results later this month?

Apparently we don't -- not that much. Here's Fleury's blog from 2004. "Today RH *IS* a proprietary vendor," wrote Fleury. "Their whole business is around proprietary wrappers to Open Source Linux to drive the subscription business. RH is a packager, it doesn't create JACK, it doesn't create Linux, it wraps it up in proprietary shit. And no the contributions that they make don't really count. Linus Torvalds creates Linux."

OK, that's only one well-informed individual's point of view. But it's a view that's shared by potential and actual RH customers too. One senior technical manager deep within BT -- which remains a RH customer -- said: "We looked into moving to Linux and, when we looked at Red Hat, we couldn't decide if it was anything more than a marketing company, as it doesn't seem to actually produce anything."

The manager also called into question whether RH's support team actually exists: "And as for it support, does it really have these 200 support engineers on tap?" he said. If he has doubts about RH, he's unlikely to be alone.

The worry here for RH is that, if those within large companies such as BT whose job it is to make and implement OS decisions question the legitimacy of RH's business model -- and that's what the BT bod was doing -- then RH has some work to do. It needs to spend some time reassuring them that, yes, it can fulfil its promises and does have the bandwidth to support an infrastructure the size of BT's with its thousands of servers.

Maybe the recent acquisition has taken RH's eye off the ball, or maybe its revenues have suffered since Oracle made its move. Whatever.

One thing is clear: RH needs to refocus and renew its messages. The game has changed, and some -- perhaps a growing number -- have yet to be convinced that RH is keeping up.


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