Last year around this time, about 8,900 people gathered in Boston for the 2019 Red Hat Summit. That was a record.

This week, the 2020 Red Hat Summit went virtual and ended up hosting over 80,000 people in a two-day online experience that did its best to offer almost everything the physical conference would have provided while keeping all participants safely isolated in their homes.

Was it perfect? Of course not. There were the inevitable technical glitches as presenters – even senior executives – discovered the hard way that their home internet links weren’t quite what they should be. But some very brave presenters did their demos live (and most of them worked), there was Q&A via live chat, badges to earn for participation, some online games to play in the Open Source Arcade, experts to interact with, and lots of sessions. And there was a lot of gratitude from participants worldwide who enthused in chat networking sessions that they were unable to travel to the live summits and were delighted with the online version. The virtual summit’s content will be available to attendees for the next year.

“The numbers are a little bonkers,” said Claude Reeves, country manager, Canada at Red Hat, noting that while 150 – 200 Canadians usually attend the physical Summit, more than 2,000 registered for this year’s virtual summit. “I think it’s going to make us look at the way we do Summit. We’re absolutely going to be doing Summit physically in person again next year, barring something crazy happening, but I think it’s also opened our eyes to the number of people who are interested in what we’re trying to do. It’s one of those weird upside points of everyone being remote. I think we’re getting a better feel for our community, for the number of people who want to hear our message, who want to engage with us. It’s in the tens of thousands.”

The message that Red Hat will operate independently of its new parent, IBM, was front and centre. Red Hat’s newly minted president and chief executive officer Paul Cormier sat down (virtually) with his predecessor Jim Whitehurst, who is now president of IBM, to talk about the future relationship.

Red Hat president and CEO Paul Cormier and IBM president Jim Whitehurst. Screenshot.

“We’ve shared the vision of open hybrid cloud for a long, long time,” Whitehurst said. “The issue has always been, obviously, that to land a horizontal platform, the company that kind of lands that platform, the same thing we did with Linux, needs to be able to work with everybody in the ecosystem. Down deep, Red Hat’s in the ecosystem building business.”

But, he noted, “IBM competes with other members of that ecosystem. So the only way we feel we can confidently leverage the scale of IBM to help ensure that the world ends up with a hybrid horizontal choice of platform is to ensure that Red Hat can work with IBM competitors. Red Hat has to stand on its own so it can work with competitors of IBM, to ensure that the platform is neutral, it’s available to anyone, that any customer anywhere can feel comfortable, if they’re working with Red Hat, they can work with whoever else they want without any type of conflict. And IBM supports that but recognizes we have to leave that separate in order to ensure its success.”

The session content was rich, but the product and services announcements at the summit were relatively few and concentrated on things to help customers keep going in these difficult times. The company is discounting Technical Account Management (TAM) services by 50 per cent for new customers. It is offering free training and has extended the life cycles of several Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) releases that were due to be end-of-life for another six months. Red Hat is also stretching the lives of versions of OpenShift, OpenShift Container Storage, Ceph Storage, and Runtimes so customers don’t have to worry about migrations.

Additionally, Red Hat announced OpenShift 4.4, OpenShift Virtualization, and Advanced Cluster Management for Kubernetes (a project that came over from IBM), and the community announced the general availability of Fedora 32.