Breaking the ‘unbreakable’

Will Larry Ellison’s announcement that Oracle is to offer support for Red Hat’s products fracture the open source community and spell the end for the Linux vendor? IT Weekly investigates

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By  Published  November 17, 2006

If the saying that you can judge a man by his enemies holds true for companies then Red Hat must be an exalted firm indeed: in the past month the Linux distributor has seen itself come under attack first from Oracle and then from an alliance forged between Microsoft and Novell.

Oracle’s assault came when the software giant announced on October 25 at its annual user conference, Oracle OpenWorld, that it was to offer bug fixes and support for Red Hat Linux, at considerably cheaper rates than Red Hat’s list price. Further, the firm would make its own version of the open source operating system available, under the new ‘Unbreakable Linux’ brand; Oracle will take Red Hat’s code, strip out the trademarks and redistribute the code under its own brand.

This month saw another assault on Red Hat, albeit a more indirect one, when Microsoft said that it was to work closely with Novell. The latter firm is Red Hat’s chief competitor in the Linux space, having bought up SuSe Linux in 2003. However, it has struggled to make much headway to date.

Now, the partnership with Microsoft will see the two firms work on the development of technologies to make SuSe and Windows more interoperable. The two firms will also work on cross-marketing and promotion of each other’s products. It was later revealed that Microsoft is spending up to US$400million on the partnership.

Microsoft’s stated intention is to make SuSe Linux the variant of choice for the growing number of customers who want to deploy Linux — but still have large proprietary systems.

“We definitely want those customers who are combining Windows and Linux to choose the Novell SuSe product line. And we’re going to put our marketing behind that,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said when announcing the partnership.

By implication of course, Microsoft definitely doesn’t want those same customers choosing Red Hat — which suggests that its new-found enthusiasm for Linux is somewhat limited. Any firm that can make Microsoft and Novell work together to thwart it must surely have something about it; if that same firm has also attracted the attention of Oracle, then it is treading in distinguished company indeed.

Not that Red Hat necessarily welcomes the attention of course. The open source firm had previously been building itself up into a strong position in the software market; its capture of another open source firm, JBoss, for US$350million back in April was heralded as showing the increasing importance of the open source market (see IT Weekly April 15 - 21 2006). By buying up JBoss, which provides open source Java middleware products, Red Hat was building itself up a software “stack” of infrastructure products, analysts said, allowing it to compete better with the more established software firms — such as Microsoft and Oracle.

“Red Hat and JBoss are fully aligned around the belief that the open source development model continues to change the economics of enterprise IT in favour of the customer and we truly believe in the potential of software innovation, once freed from proprietary development,” Red Hat’s CEO and chairman Matthew Szulik, said at the time.

Industry reaction

Having made such bold statements, perhaps Szulik shouldn’t be too surprised that those “proprietary” software firms have sat up and taken notice.

While Oracle had actively promoted the Red Hat Linux variant to its customer base, shortly after Red Hat bought JBoss, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said that he was considering entering the Linux business.

In an exclusive interview with IT Weekly in July, Ellison said that his firm was looking at taking on Red Hat with its own support, a move he said was in response to customers telling Oracle “they are not happy with Red Hat support”. Such a move would be easy to do, Ellison noted, because Red Hat — like any other open source vendor — does not own the intellectual property.

Tellingly, Ellison then stated that he did not wish to “invent a new operating system” nor develop its own flavour of Linux.

“We don’t want to fragment Linux, we don’t want lots of versions of Linux, an Oracle version of Linux, an IBM version of Linux,” he said at the time.

Red Hat has responded with a campaign badged “Unfakeable Linux”, in which it claimed that Oracle’s move will indeed lead to a “fork” in the Linux OS — where the Oracle version and Red Hat’s own version could end up not synchronised.

This could lead to compatibility problems for customers who want to run applications across more than one Linux distribution, Red Hat is warning customers on its website. Industry analysts have also warned of the dangers of a Linux fork, especially as Oracle is promising to provide patch support for older versions of the OS — something which Red Hat does not currently do.

Fork fears

The fear here is that if Oracle decides to distribute bug fixes on its own schedule, rather than waiting to add it to the kernel, then an application that runs on Oracle’s version of Linux may not be guaranteed to run on the next release of Red Hat Linux.

If Red Hat decides not to incorporate the Oracle fix — say because it causes incompatibility problems with another part of the OS — or comes up with a different fix, customers might then have to choose between the two versions.

For industry veterans this does bring to mind the problems that occurred between Unix vendors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a number of competing versions created. Some analysts have suggested that Oracle will ultimately either have to accept that it has created a fork — and back its own flavour of Linux — or buy Red Hat outright.

While acknowledging the potential danger of creating a fork in the OS, Gartner said that the move could still benefit Red Hat customers and has recommended that they undertake compatibility testing of the software.

The move will certainly impact on Red Hat pricing, Gartner believes, advising Red Hat customers to seek large discounts — up to 70% in some cases, on their support contracts, even if they are happy with Red Hat’s quality of support.

“Oracle’s entry into the Linux support market will inevitably slow Red Hat’s momentum and raises doubts about its long-term viability,” Gartner warned in an online advisory, adding the move was a “wake-up call” for the whole open source industry.

Analyst firm RedMonk agrees that recent events have been a knock for Red Hat, with analyst Stephen O’Grady writing that the firm has been “taken down a peg — possibly several pegs” by the Oracle and Microsoft/Novell announcements. However, it is less clear that these announcements offer any real benefit for Red Hat customers. While Oracle can offer hefty discounts on its list prices for support, larger customers don’t tend to pay list price anyway.

And more than one analyst has been keen to point out that Oracle’s support record for Linux is not as well proven as Red Hat’s.

Even if Oracle does capture Red Hat’s support business, the impact on its own revenue stream will be minimal.

“I understand that there is probably more than one reason to do this,” said Gavin Clarke, vice president of support services, Oracle EMEA.

It remains to be seen what impact the Oracle and Microsoft/Novell moves will have on Red Hat’s business — and even more so what impact those moves will have on Linux.

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