Red Hat's CEO On Why The Open Source Leader Will Dominate Containers

Red Hat's aim for its OpenShift container management platform is nothing short of total domination of one of the tech industry's most rapidly growing markets, the company's CEO, Jim Whitehurst, told CRN.

And Red Hat's not-so-secret weapon in that ultra-competitive arena is its market-leading operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), which distinguishes containers within OpenShift from those managed by competing platforms, Whitehurst told CRN at last week's Red Hat Summit in San Francisco.

"Containers are Linux. It is just a different way to deliver Linux," Whitehurst said. "So for us it's existential to win."

[Related: 5 Ways Red Hat's Acquisition Of CoreOS Will Shake Up The Container Tech Landscape]

The open source giant based in Raleigh, N.C. is positioning OpenShift, a Platform-as-a-Service geared for containerized workloads, as a flagship product that will drive the company to $5 billion in revenue in the coming years.

"We both intend to win it and we need to win it. That's our business … and I think we're incredibly well-positioned to be able do that," Red Hat's CEO said of the container market.

Whitehurst said he envisions OpenShift becoming to containers what RHEL is to the operating system—a go-to solution trusted by enterprises because of its stability and security.

Docker launched the container revolution in 2014 by introducing its container standard, and its name is synonymous with the technology. But as the battle to monetize containers has shifted to the management layer of the stack, where Docker offers its Enterprise Edition platform, Red Hat wants to eat the container-pioneer's lunch.

Docker container images, and others adhering to Open Container Initiative specifications that can be orchestrated and managed by the leading commercial platforms, essentially divide the operating system in two. The host machine runs the OS kernel; the entire user space is encapsulated in the container.

Competitors, like Docker, want to say Linux doesn't matter in that schema, Whitehurst said.

"But it is Linux. It's just Linux delivered in two pieces," he told CRN. "Because we're the biggest Linux player, if you're trying to compete with us you don’t want to talk about Linux because you'll lose to us."

It's in the user space that Red Hat's operating system shines, Whitehurst said.

"Guess what," he said, "90-something percent of the vulnerabilities in the operating system happen in the user space."

ISVs deploying containerized applications don't want to be in the business of life-cycling the operating system and patching it for every security vulnerability, which "by the way, happens a couple times a week," Whitehurst said.

Red Hat is wise to play up its standing in the Linux ecosystem, said Bradley Brodkin, CEO of HighVail, a Toronto-based Red Hat and Docker partner.

Linux is "the key to everything," Brodkin told CRN. "The operating system matters. It matters at all levels. For end-user customers, it matters in terms of supportability, compliance. This is what Red Hat and RHEL bring."

Linux is one of two essential elements of a comprehensive container management platform, said Whitehurst. The second is the orchestration engine, which these days is usually Kubernetes, a technology internally developed, and later open sourced, by Google.

Bulking up Red Hat's effort on that front is the $250 million acquisition of CoreOS, a startup backed partly by Google that was first to bring a commercial version of Kubernetes to the enterprise market.

Red Hat is neck-and-neck with Intel as the top contributor to Linux. With CoreOS under its roof, Red Hat has become the second-largest contributor to the Kubernetes project, only trailing Google, making the company a crucial player in both open source communities.

CoreOS took a very different approach to Kubernetes than Red Hat, Whitehurst said, making for a highly complementary offering.

"They were operators," Whitehurst said of the San Francisco-based startup his company purchased in January. "So they start off with making this next-generation application platform really easy to use, with automated operations, over-the-air updates, all that kind of stuff."

Red Hat will integrate features from Tectonic, the CoreOS platform, in the summer release of OpenShift. Those include the Quay image registry, the Operators management toolset, and CoreOS' update mechanism.

Marrying the ease-of-use CoreOS delivers with Red Hat content, like a 10-year life cycle, "never-break" binary compatibility, Common Criteria Certifications, makes for a world-class platform, Whitehurst said.

Red Hat has also rebranded CoreOS' lightweight Linux distribution designed specifically for hosting containerized workloads as Red Hat CoreOS.

Red Hat has long employed a strategy of watching emerging open source technologies, and throwing its enterprise know-how behind those it deemed most-promising.

In 2015, the software developer saw the writing on the wall, and reeworked OpenShift with a container-native architecture.

Partners with container expertise see promise in Red Hat's ambitious strategy and are seizing the opportunity to drive the rapidly emerging market.

Vizuri, a leading Red Hat implementer, unveiled at Red Hat Summit an OpenShift sandbox to tackle the largest challenge it has encountered in the market—training enterprise customers on the technology, Joe Dickman, senior vice president of the Virginia-based solution provider, told CRN.

"What's been preventing people from adopting OpenShift? It's basically knowledge," Dickman said. "Organizations have limited IT budgets, but they're told, 'containers, container, containers.' They're journey has to start with education."

The Vizuri OpenShift Sandbox, which imposes a validated reference architecture to deliver a "pseudo-development environment" hosted in Amazon Web Services, allows IT teams to immediately begin playing with the technology without the constraints of "political or knowledge or accuracy barriers," Dickman said.

Customers that start using the solution in the cloud can bring OpenShift back on premises if they would like for production deployments, he said.

Red Hat is best-positioned to support a containerized environment, Dickman told CRN.

"All of their acquisitions are slowly falling into place. They bought these other products when they were standalone, but each plays a critical role in the complete picture," Dickman said in regard to recent acquisitions like CoreOS, and the Ansible configuration manager before it.

"There's nobody who has more of the pieces put together," Dickman said. "What makes Red Hat compelling is that all the pieces seem to be aligned."

Dickman and his team attending last week's San Francisco conference enjoyed a surprise visit from Whitehurst, who swung by their booth to check out the product they developed and later tweeted a photo of the visit.

Whitehurst's interest in his company's efforts demonstrates that Red Hat leaders understand the importance of partners in bringing the comprehensive solution to enterprise customers, Dickman said.

"In the cloud, nobody gets fired by buying OpenShift for containers," Dickman said, updating an old adage about IBM.

IBM seems to agree. The technology stalwart announced an agreement last week with Red Hat to deliver some of its most-popular private cloud and middleware solutions, like WebSphere, MQ Series and Db2, as Red Hat Certified Containers on the OpenShift platform.

The deal makes sense for IBM, because it will encourage its customers to relicense those products "if they can live in modern architectures," Dickman said.

Red Hat's OpenShift strategy is also essential because the shift to container architectures will impact some of its other products, according to Dickman.

Java application services, like Red Hat's JBoss, are destined for a slow decline with the advent of APIs and micro-services architectures.

"Every new modern app will be laid out differently," Dickman said, no longer based on standalone Java servers.

Docker and other on-premise rivals to OpenShift aren't the only competition Red Hat faces in the market. Every major cloud provider now offers a managed Kubernetes service.

Whitehurst told CRN what differentiates OpenShift is it employs a service broker model that makes it highly portable.

"You can run OpenShift on all the clouds. Our value proposition is write to OpenShift, you can run it anywhere," Whitehurst said.

In that sense, while Red Hat competes with the cloud giants, it's also complementary to their services.

"We provide this hybrid model. Buy our infrastructure and you can run it anywhere, where I think the Amazon service or Google service is, 'come by our cloud cycles and we'll give you the container platform'," Whitehurst told CRN. "If you want hybrid, it’s the only place to go."

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