Open source community sees risk and reward in IBM purchase of Red Hat

On a media call the morning after announcing Big Blue’s acquisition of Red Hat, executives answered reporter questions typed into a web form and insisted the outcome wouldn’t be a purple blend.

IBM is spending $34 billion on Red Hat, it seems, so it can continue to operate exactly as it is today. Red Hat’s roadmaps are still reliable, executives say, and it will continue to be able to partner with other public cloud providers without interference.

Paul Cormier, president of products and technologies team at Red Hat, was coming from a morning all-hands meeting where his new boss, IBM CEO Gini Rometty was on hand to answer questions from employees.

“The day after we close, I don’t intend to do anything different,” he said. “It’s business as usual for us… we have to do what’s right for the community.”

Also on the call, Arvind Krishna, senior vice-president of hybrid cloud at IBM, backed up the steady course rhetoric.

“Red Hat as a brand will continue as long as I foresee,” he said. “We do want to maintain the Switzerland nature of Red Hat technologies.”

Meaning that Red Hat will continue to work with other public cloud partners such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services. Cormier even said during the call that Red Hat plans to continue its OpenStack investment, an open source cloud platform that provides an alternative to its new offering with IBM.

The way IBM will capitalize on owning Red Hat, according to the executives, will be to cross-sell its services to its vast network of customers as they inevitably shift more workloads to the cloud.

“The way to accelerate hybrid cloud adoption is to pick a common fabric,” Krishna said. “Containers and Kubernetes together will offer people the same kind of standardized technologies.”

Red Hat customers, Cormier says, see a hybrid cloud infrastructure approach as the only feasible way to bring public cloud capabilities into their environments. So they use OpenShift, Red Hat’s Kubernetes orchestration service, to make workloads that are portable.

It’s a story that sounds believable, but how do leaders within the open source community see the acquisition? Do they believe IBM will allow Red Hat to operate much as it does today? IT World Canada spoke to several to find out.

First reactions – weighing risk and reward

It’s fair to say most in the open source community were surprised by the news.

“Holy shit,” says Marc Lijour, the head of solutions at Toronto-based ConsenSys. “I was not thinking about Red Hat to be picked up by IBM.”

Lijour, who has been working with open source projects for 20 years and formerly worked for Mandriva, a French firm that made Mandrake Linux, expected Red Hat to remain independent because of its healthy earnings reports and its halo reputation as an open source advocate.

With the IBM acquisition, he’s worried the smaller firm could be swallowed up whole by Big Blue. But he’s also excited at the prospect of accelerated open source adoption.

“There’s a big risk of being diluted, to be absorbed into IBM, which is a big machine,” he said. On the other hand, IBM is “no stranger to open source,” with hefty investments towards open source over the years and a commitment to Java that it reaffirmed with extended support earlier this year.

“It’s very good news for open source,” he says. “It’s been accepted and adopted everywhere.”

For Ahmad Nassri, the chief architect at Telus Digital and self-described open source advocate, he sees where IBM is going with its strategy in acquiring Red Hat. The key piece is OpenShift, which complements IBM Cloud’s existing Function as a Service (FaaS) capability, allowing customers to develop, operate, and manage applications without maintaining the infrastructure often associated with it. It’s part of the new development trend of microservices architecture. But that sort of serverless environment seems a far cry for the IBM customers running legacy environments.

“How do you take those 20 to 30-year-old technologies and enable them in the cloud as opposed to replace them with cloud?” he asks rhetorically. Most companies aren’t in a position to just pull out of their legacy infrastructure entirely. Now IBM can help their customers in this position to transition from the mainframe world to the cloud.

IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat is a way to vault its prominence as a public cloud provider, offers Jim Love, IT World Canada’s own CIO. With Red Hat’s expertise in Linux and Kubernetes, it will be able to offer up an important piece of underlying infrastructure for clients.

“I really believe that they will keep the two cultures separate,” he says. “But there is no doubt some concerns… what they have to fear is a viable fork emerging in response to might be seen as a potential takeover of the open source world.”

The issue of competing technologies

In some cases, IBM has built its public cloud infrastructure on technology stacks that seem in opposition to Red Hat offerings. Some open source leaders wonder if that puts the future of those products in question.

Take Bluemix for instance. IBM’s platform as a service (PaaS) that is baked into IBM Cloud as its development environment was often pitted against OpenShift previously. On many sites that score and rank PaaS providers, OpenShift scores higher than Bluemix.

Lijour says he wouldn’t be surprised to see Bluemix go down the drain.

“It’s a signal that Bluemix is not doing well,” he says. “What the heck are they going to do with two competing technologies?”

He points to Cloud Foundry, another PaaS on IBM Cloud that serves much the same function as Docker, which is a technology underlying OpenShift. Docker has become the standard for deploying and scaling apps without infrastructure configuration.

While executives were adamant that Red Hat will be able to continue working with public cloud competitors like AWS, Nassri sees a future where that gets dialed back. Current Red Hat workloads being hosted on AWS wouldn’t be pulled out, as that would disrupt customers. But when new customers are onboarded or contract renewals come up, IBM Cloud will likely be at least suggested. After all, why would IBM want to pay a competitor for a service it offers?

“That bill goes to Amazon right now,” he says. “Soon enough they’ll have an option to use IBM Cloud for that infrastructure.”

IT World Canada reached out to Noureen Syed, the open source lead at Microsoft Canada, about the acquisition. She offered this comment:

“Microsoft has long believed a hybrid approach to cloud resonates with customers and the news from a couple days ago validates this position,” she writes. “The news doesn’t impact Microsoft’s partnership with Red Hat at this time.”

Azure is getting pretty open source itself

Finally, if IBM plans to push its open-source advantage as a differentiator in the public cloud space, that story might not hold an audience for too long. Both Nassri and Lijour point to Microsoft’s recent efforts to commit to opensource and Azure’s increasingly open source-based core.

The momentum around Microsoft’s open source shift really began about five years ago with its .NET platform being released in November 2014, Nassri says.

“If you look at their recent community engagements these days, it’s almost entirely based on their open source strategy,” he says.

More than half of Microsoft’s work on Azure is open source now, Lijour said.

Ten years ago, if you’d predicted IBM and Microsoft were trying to one-up each other on who has the most open source cred, most developers would have laughed. Yet here we are.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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