Now safely out of the snow, slush, ice, and freezing rain that flooded roadways on the way to the airport this morning, we finally made it down to Orlando where we’re in for a rather interesting juxtaposition. On adjoining hallways in the same Marriott, JBoss and IDS Scheer are holding their annual North American events. On one side, a bunch of open source developers, on the other, a sober group of business and enterprise architects who deal with what the JBoss crowd might otherwise consider the enemy: IBM, SAP, and Oracle.
Today was JBoss’s turn. Maybe it was too appropriate, that fresh out of the rain and slush (not to mention an unscheduled refueling stop in Jacksonville), we felt right at home in muddy sneakers and dirty jeans at the JBoss event. Tomorrow we’d feel embarrassed (yes mom, we’ll start ironing our slacks once we’re done with this blog).
Reinforcing our perception is the sense that JBoss is trying to find its own voice now that the reins have passed on from founder Marc Fleury (yes, he’ll make his emeritus appearance tomorrow, but we’ll be elsewhere). Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, barely on the job for 6 weeks (he was formerly COO at Delta), touting an enterprise message with the stretch goal to claim half of all enterprise middleware workloads by 2015. VP of engineering and cofounder Sacha Labourey making a rather amateurish presentation that seems all too fitting with the improvisational, open source roots of the company, conceding that the company has not been as vocal about its accomplishments lately (e.g., Fleury’s no longer around to trumpet them) – and promising to do better in the future.
Over the past year, we’ve been musing about whether JBoss is finally growing out of its outlaw heritage. And our sense now is that the company is still trying to settle on its identity now that it is part of Red Hat, and how it can afford to serve two masters: the installed base that likes the freedom of being able to monkey around with the appserver without losing support, and the structures of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, where changes to the supported configuration might jeopardize support.
As we’ve noted, JBoss is trying to build its own alternative to Oracle/BEA and IBM with a fuller middleware platform stack, buttressed with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Yet, we’re not sure how well that strategy will go down with JBoss’s historical base.
We found a surprising number of JBoss Server customers who considered Red Hat Enterprise Linux too bloated, opting for other distributions instead. Aside from Hibernate (and deep respect for creator Gavin King, who’s part of JBoss), JBoss still has its work cut out getting adoption of the portal, rules, orchestration, ESB and other parts of the platform. For instance, one customer claimed the portal product was too buggy, finding it more expedient to write his own code. Others spoke of dispensing with JBoss’s still developing ESB in favor of the more established Mule open source project.
Now you’ve got to take a lot of the feedback with grains of salt. The core base that loves JBoss Server is a group that resembles the UNIX programmers of yore: they prefer slimmed down, command line interfaces because for them it’s far more efficient than monkeying around with a GUI. And in fact Microsoft, which obviously promotes visual development and administration, bit the bullet earlier this year with the command line admin console PowerShell. And these folks love to program rather than take packaged solutions.
The problem for developer-focused ISVs is that these folks don’t buy enterprise suites.
That poses a dilemma for JBoss. It’s been known and loved for fairly compact, configurable server platforms right-sized for Linux and Unix geeks. Yet as it becomes part of the Red Hat Enterprise, and charts ambitious goals to grab half of middle tier workloads, it’s got to cultivate more enterprise appeal, and especially, targeting business and process architects who wouldn’t fit in at a JBoss conference today (well, we did happen to meet one).
Unfortunately, because JetBlue packed only enough fuel to get us only as far as Jacksonville, we missed our opportunity to ask Whitehurst how he plans to take JBoss upmarket (we hope we’ll get our chance next week). But for now, we’re hedging our bets on whether or how soon JBoss will be able to deal with what’s likely to become a generation gap.