Linux is not Red Hat

Communication is, well, tricky, especially when hard core open-source and business folks are talking to each other. That's why I'm tentative in what I say about the Newsforge article Linux is not Red Hat.

The reason is, I agree with a fair bit of what the author says - but I also see why he's wrong in his interpretation of Jonathan and Scott's comments.

The author, Jem Matzan, clearly has well above average knowledge of open-source projects and products based on Linux, and also non-Linux open-source operating systems like OpenBSD. But the problem is not that someone (such as a well-informed open-source commentator, or for that matter almost any UNIX developer or system administrator) who is in touch with open-source knows that Linux is not Red Hat (and vice-versa). That's a given.

The problem is that companies who look for a well-supported operating system to run their business are not going to use or the Linux Online list of distributions to find some code to run. They are going to look to a leading vendor. And right now, Red Hat is the company most closely identified with Linux, not any of the other admirable distros he mentions such as Debian, Gentoo, or Slackware. Not even Suse, which is beginning to become more important (and whose Linux Enterprise Desktop is used as the base of Sun's Linux-based Java Desktop System) comes close in terms of recognition among large businesses. Or for that matter, commercial developers, or folks looking for Linux skills certification. In that sense, Red Hat is Linux, and in the sense that some Linux technologies such as RPMs carry the Red Hat brand. And it is in that sense that there is some work to do before the Linux "brand" and the stamp of "Linux-ness" can really be applied to non-RH distributions. Aside: the ongoing efforts of United Linux, standards like Linux Standard Base, and other initiatives have some way to go before they are a large enough target (in terms of completeness, broad support from open-source stakeholders, and recognition from businesses).

The only place where I would highlight that Jem is 100% mistaken is where he gives some different projects the same weight; while an open-source hacker may have respect for the code or say the "potential" of free distributions like Fedora, and praise them for being in some respects more "leading edge" relative to some more stable Linux distribution, it is not correct, either technically or from a support perspective, to compare a product like Solaris 10 and a project like Fedora in terms of value simply because they are both free. The difference is one of quality, reliability and, of course, support for businesses who can't afford to walk the tightrope of an operating system without a major company standing over it. And Sun is widely recognised for the significant innovative capabilities in Solaris 10, which Jem acknowledges at different points.

It's clear that Sun is mis-understood by some folks working with open-source even though Sun is, balls to bones, a company built on the philosophy and ethic of open-source; it's also clear that Sun's focus on open standards as a mechanism for replaceability is not always valued by some open-source folks (even though we all take for granted the ability to plug a monitor cable from one desktop into another). But I think the most important part of Jem's article is the fact that he had the opportunity to have a conversation, however brief, with Scott and Jonathan. That's another step on the road to better communication, which is where this blog entry came in.


The point I was trying to make, both at the Solaris launch event and in the article, was that there are commercially supported and developed GNU/Linux distributions that are more powerful and more fully featured than Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server. I wanted to know how Solaris 10 competed with SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9, which has features that can match many of Solaris 10's. My other problem with the marketing rhetoric that Scott McNealy practically shouted at me was that no one was comparing Solaris 10 to a specific Red Hat product -- just "Red Hat" in general. This does not sit well with me; it reeks of FUD.

One part that my editor cut out of the article was a narrative describing walking out of the Imax theater at the launch event. Frustrated with the dog and pony show that Sun put on for us, I said to my colleague, "You know, if I were a customer or vendor, I would not have appreciated those misleading comparisons and all of that marketing crap. I'd want the straight facts so that I know what I'm getting into." Some others around me heard that and laughed at my naivete, or my brazenness, or perhaps they felt the same way and thought they were alone in that sentiment.

Anyway, I did a case study on a company named Mailroute a few months ago. They use Fedora Core in production -- so it's not unheard of to use something that is not Red Hat Enterprise Linux in a production environment. There are countless OpenBSD installations running production firewalls, countless FreeBSD Web servers (all of Hotmail ran on FreeBSD for a long time), and I'm fairly certain that most of OSTG's production infrastructure is running on Debian. It seems crazy to me that anyone would run MS Windows in these kinds of environments, but there are many businesses that do. But I think the Sun execs were trying to aim higher than the small and medium business market. After asking around a little, I don't know anyone who has worked in or seen an enterprise production environment that was totally monocultural. The exceptions would of course be Sun and Microsoft, both of which are famous for eating their own dog food. But if Microsoft had to pay for their software and support, and if Sun had to pay for their own hardware and software support, I doubt they would remain monocultural for very long.

If I have any advice for Sun, it would be to concentrate on certain applications within an enterprise, rather than "servers" and "workstations" or just everything in general. Red Hat will continue to be more competitive than Sun for the simple reason that they have a variety of different RHEL products to meet a variety of corporate needs. Sun has Solaris 10 and, quietly, Java Desktop System, neither of which are capable of competing with RH's entire enterprise product stack, despite the technological superiority of Solaris 10. One size does not fit all.

Posted by Jem Matzan on December 01, 2004 at 03:32 PM PST #

Hi Jem, thanks for your comments. I agree it is not nice to use the name of a competitor to identify their primary product, but unfortunately this happens all the time in all kinds of contexts (see for an example where "Sun" is used to refer to "Solaris"). I agree with you however that official company spokespersons should refer to specific products.

Sun is certainly aiming for the enterprise market, but I see many Sun products (like JDS (on Linux or Solaris) and StarOffice, or for that matter Java Enterprise System) that are very interesting to SMBs.

I agree with you that few companies are entirely monocultural, but often one OS dominates (as Windows currently does on the desktop). I think that as software increases in interoperability (through open standards, and by virtue of being built on the same open source), we will see more diverse deployments within companies, especially if the different software stacks can be managed from a single tool.

Red Hat uses brand names for variants of RH Linux with different combinations of bundled products, but I don't think this makes them any more competitive; Sun offers a range of products (like Java Enterprise System) that can run on the same base Solaris - that is in my view far more interesting for enterprises than trying to support many variants of the base OS. In terms of application software, one size definitely does not fit all, but it is a distinct advantage to know that there is a single (and reliable) base OS under that software.

As to your comment about straight talking versus marketese; I'm 100% for it. I hope you see straight talking on Sun's blogs (call us out on it if you don't) and I think you can expect to see more straight talking in Sun's formal channels for addressing customers.

Posted by Colm Smyth on December 01, 2004 at 06:11 PM PST #

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