Category Archives: Linux

Oracle’s Sun Java Strategy: Business as Usual

In an otherwise pretty packed news day, we’d like to echo @mdl4’s sentiments about the respective importance of Apple’s and Oracle’s announcements: “Oracle finalized its purchase of Sun. Best thing to happen to Sun since Java. Also: I don’t give a sh#t about the iPad. I said it.”

There’s little new in observing that on the platform side, that Oracle’s acquisition of Sun is a means for turning the clock back to the days of turnkey systems in a post-appliance era. History truly has come full circle as Oracle in its original database incarnation was one of the prime forces that helped decouple software from hardware. Fast forward to the present, and customers are tired of complexity and just want things that work. Actually, that idea was responsible for the emergence of specialized appliances over the past decade for performing tasks ranging from SSL encryption/decryption to XML processing, firewalls, email, or specialized web databases.

The implication here is that the concept is elevated to enterprise level; instead of a specialized appliance, it’s your core instance of Oracle databases, middleware, or applications. And even there, it’s but a logical step forward from Oracle’s past practice of certifying specific configurations of its database on Sun (Sun was, and now has become again, Oracle’s reference development platform). That’s in essence the argument for Oracle to latch onto a processor architecture that is overmatched in investment by Intel for the x86 line. The argument could be raised than in an era of growing interest in cloud, as to whether Oracle is fighting the last war. That would be the case – except for the certainty that your data center has just as much chance of dying as your mainframe.

At the end of the day, it’s inevitably a question of second source. Dana Gardner opines that Oracle will replace Microsoft as the hedge to IBM. Gordon Haff contends that alternate platform sources are balkanizing as Cisco/EMC/VMware butts their virtualized x86 head into the picture and customers look to private clouds the way they once idealized grids.

The highlight for us was what happens to Sun’s Java portfolio, and as it turns out, the results are not far from what we anticipated last spring: Oracle’s products remain the flagship offerings. From looking at respective market shares, it would be pretty crazy for Oracle to have done otherwise

The general theme was that – yes – Sun’s portfolio will remain the “reference” technologies for the JCP standards, but that these are really only toys that developers should play with. When they get serious, they’re going to keep using WebLogic, not Glassfish. Ditto for:
• Java software development. You can play around with NetBeans, which Oracle’s middleware chief Thomas Kurian characterized as a “lightweight development environment,” but again, if you really want to develop enterprise-ready apps for the Oracle platform, you will still use JDeveloper, which of course is written for Oracle’s umbrella ADF framework that underlies its database, middleware, and applications offerings. That’s identical to Oracle’s existing posture with the old (mostly) BEA portfolio of Eclipse developer tools. Actually, the only thing that surprised us was that Oracle didn’t simply take NetBeans and set it free – as in donating it to Apache or some more obscure open source body.
• SOA, where Oracle’s SOA Suite remains front and center while Sun’s offerings go on maintenance.

We’re also not surprised as to the prominent role of JavaFX in Oracle’s RIA plans; it fills a vacuum created when Oracle terminated BEA’s former arrangement to bundle Adobe Flash/Flex development tooling. In actuality, Oracle has become RIA agnostic, as ADF could support any of the frameworks for client display, but JavaFX provides a technology that Oracle can call its own.

There were some interesting distinctions with identity management and access, where Sun inherited some formidable technologies that, believe it or not, originated with Netscape. Oracle Identity management will grab some provisioning technology from the Sun stack, but otherwise Oracle’s suite will remain the core attraction. But Sun’s identity and access management won’t be put out to pasture, as it will be promoted for midsized web installations.

There are much bigger pieces to Oracle’s announcements, but we’ll finish with what becomes of MySQL. In short there’s nothing surprising to the announcement that MySQL will be maintained in a separate open source business unit – the EU would not have allowed otherwise. But we’ve never bought into the story that Oracle would kill MySQL. Both databases aim at different markets. Just about the only difference that Oracle’s ownership of MySQL makes – besides reuniting it under the same corporate umbrella as the InnoDB data store – is that, well, like yeah, MySQL won’t morph into an enterprise database. Then again, even if MySQL had remained independent, that arguably it was never going to evolve to the same class of Oracle as the product would lose its beloved simplicity.

The more relevant question for MySQL is whether Oracle will fork development to favor Solaris on SPARC. This being open source, there would be nothing stopping the community from taking the law into its own hands.

Oracle finally gets its database appliance

Thank you Larry for finally putting us out of our misery, as Oracle has finally silenced the chattering classes (mea culpa) with a $9.50/share bid for Sun (almost smack dab in the middle between IBM’s original and revised lower bids).

In many ways this deal brings events full circle between Oracle and Sun. The obvious part is that the deal solidifies Oracle’s enterprise stack vs. IBM in that Oracle can now go fully mano a mano against IBM for the enterprise data center, database, platform and all. It also provides a welcome counterbalance to IBM for control over Java’s destiny. While the deal is likely to finally put NetBeans out of its misery, it means that there will be a competition over direction of the Java stack that is borne of realpolitik, not religion.

More importantly, it finally gives Solaris a meaning for existence as it returns to serving as Oracle’s reference platform. In a way, you could state that both companies were twins separated at birth, as both emerged as the de facto reference platforms for UNIX in the 80s; the deal was sealed with Sun’s purchase of some of the assets of Cray in the mid 90s that finally gave Sun an enterprise server on which Oracle could raise the ante on IBM. Aside from HP’s brief challenge with SAP in the mid 90s, Solaris has always been the biggest platform for Oracle.

But after the dot com bust and emergence of Linux, Solaris lost its relevance as open source provided an 80/20 alternative that was good enough for most dot coms. It left Sun with an identity crisis, debated much on these pages and elsewhere, as to its next act. Under Jonathan Schwartz’s watch, Sun tried becoming the enterprise counter pole to Red Hat – all the goodness of open source, MySQL too, but with the bulletproofing that Red Hat and SuSE were missing. As we noted a few weeks back, great idea, but not enough to support a $5 billion business.

Now Solaris becomes part of the Oracle enterprise stack – a marriage that makes sense as businesses investing in high end enterprise applications are going to expect umbrella deals. In other words, now Oracle has the complete deal to counter IBM. Oracle in the past has flirted with database appliances and certified implementations – now it doesn’t have to flirt anymore. More importantly, it provides a natural platform for Oracle to offer its own cloud.

The deal protects Sun’s – likely soon to be Oracle’s – hold on the Solaris installed base more than it protects the Oracle database, application or middleware stack. Basically, shades of UNIX hardware are commodity and more readily replaced than databases or applications. That’s why you saw Sun try developing a software business over years as it desperately needed something firmer to anchor Solaris. Oracle seals the deal.

Obviously, this one makes PeopleSoft and Siebel walks in the park, if you compare the scale of the deal. Miko Matsumura and Vinnie Merchandani have their doubts as to how well this beast will swallow the prey.

CORRECTION: The PeopleSoft deal was larger and marked the beginning of Oracle’s grand acquisitions spree. But this deal marks a major new chapter in the way it could transform Oracle’s core business.

While there is plenty of discussion of how this changes the lineup of who delivers to the data center, we’ll focus on some of the interesting implications for developers.

For starters, my colleague Dana Gardner had an interesting take on what this means for MySQL, which he calls MyToast. We concur with the rest of his analysis -– but depart from it on this one. First, this is open source, and in this case, open source where the genie is already out of the bottle. Were Oracle to try killing MySQL, there would be nothing to stop enterprising open source developers and some of the old MySQL team from developing a YourSQL. Secondly, MySQL was never going to seriously compete with Oracle as the database, in spite of improvement, remains too underpowered. Our take is that Oracle could take the opportunity to cultivate the base and develop the makings of a lightweight middleware stack that for the most part would be found money, rather than cannibalization, of its core business.

The other interesting question concerns Java. Three words: NetBeans is history.

Sun’s problem was that the company was too much under the control of engineers -– otherwise, how to explain why the company kept painting itself into corners with technologies increasingly off the mainstream, like NetBeans, or the more recent JavaFX Java-native rich internet client? Now that it “owns” the origins of the Java stack, we expect Oracle to provide counterweight to IBM/Eclipse, but as mentioned earlier, it will be one borne of nuance rather than religion. You can see it already in Oracle’s bifurcated Eclipse strategy, where its core development platform, JDeveloper, is not Eclipse-compliant, but the recently acquired BEA stack is. In some areas, such as Java persistence, Oracle has taken lead billing. Anyway, as Eclipse has spread from developer to run time platform, why would Oracle give up its position as a member of Eclipse’s board.

We see a different fate for JavaFX, however. If you recall, one of the first things that Oracle did after closing the BEA acquisition was dropping BEA’s deal to bundle the Adobe Flash client as part of its Java development suite. Instead, Oracle’s RIA strategy consisted of donating its Java Server Faces (JSF) to Apache as the MyFaces project. As JSF is server side technology for deploying the MVC framework to Java, we expect that Oracle will view JavaFX as the lightweight Java-native rich client alternative, providing web developers dual alternatives for deploying rich functionality.

The Network is the Computer

It’s sometimes funny that history takes some strange turns. Back in the 1980s, Sun began building its empire in the workgroup by combining two standards: UNIX boxes with TCP/IP networks built in. Sun’s The Network is the Computer message declared that computing was of little value without the network. Of course, Sun hardly had a lock on the idea, as Bob Metcalfe devised the law stating that the value of the network was exponentially related to the number of nodes connected, and that Digital (DEC) (remember them?) actually scaled out the idea at division level where Sun was elbowing its way into the workgroup.

Funny that DEC was there first but they only got the equation half right – bundling a proprietary OS to a standard networking protocol. Fast forward a decade and Digital was history, Sun was the dot in dot com. Then go a few more years later, as Linux made even a “standard” OS like UNIX look proprietary, Sun suffers DEC’s fate (OK they haven’t been acquired, yet and still have cash reserves, if they could only figure out what to do when they finally grow up), and bandwidth, blades get commodity enough that businesses start thinking that the cloud might be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to the data center. Throw in a very wicked recession and companies are starting to think that the numbers around the cloud – cheap bandwidth, commodity OS, commodity blades – might provide the avoided cost dollars they’ve all been looking for. That is, if they can be assured that lacing data out in the cloud won’t violate ay regulatory or privacy headaches.

So today it gets official. After dropping hints for months, Cisco has finally made it official: its Unified Computing System is to provide in essence a prepackaged data center:

Blades + Storage Networking + Enterprise Networking in a box.

By now you’ve probably read the headlines – that UCS is supposed to do, what observers like Dana Gardner term, bring an iPhone like unity to the piece parts that pass for data centers. It would combine blade, network device, storage management and VMware’s virtualization platform (as you might recall, Cisco owns a $150 million chunk of VMware) to provide, in essence, a data center appliance in the cloud.

In a way, UCS is a closing of the circle that began with mainframe host/terminal architectures of a half century ago: a single monolithic architecture with no external moving parts.

Of course, just as Sun wasn’t the first to exploit TCP/IP network, but got the lion’s share of credit from, similarly, Cisco is hardly the first to bridge the gap between compute and networking node. Sun already has a Virtual Network Machines Project for processing network traffic on general-purpose servers, while its Project Crossbow is supposed to make networks virtual as well as part of its OpenSolaris project. Sounds like a nice open source research project to us that’s limited to the context of the Solaris OS. Meanwhile HP has raped up its Procurve business, which aims at the heart of Cisco territory. Ironically, the dancer left on the sidelines is IBM, which sold off its global networking business to AT&T over a decade ago, and its ROLM network switches nearly a decade before that.

It’s also not Cisco’s first foray out of the base of the network OSI stack. Anybody remember Application-Oriented Networking? Cisco’s logic, to build a level of content-based routing into its devices was supposed to make the network “understand” application traffic. Yes, it secured SAP’s endorsement for the rollout, but who were you really going to sell this to in the enterprise? Application engineers didn’t care for the idea of ceding some of their domain to their network counterparts. On the other hand, Cisco’s successful foray into storage networking proves that the company is not a one-trick pony.

What makes UCS different on this go round are several factors. Commoditization of hardware and firmware, emergence of virtualization and the cloud, makes division of networking, storage, and datacenter OS artificial. Recession makes enterprises hungry for found money, maturation of the cloud incents cloud providers to buy pre-packaged modules to cut acquisition costs and improve operating margins. Cisco’s lineup of partners is also impressive – VMware, Microsoft, Red Hat, Accenture, BMC, etc. – but names and testimonials alone won’t make UCS fly. The fact is that IT has no more hunger for data center complexity, the divisions between OS, storage, and networking no longer adds value, and cloud providers need a rapid way of prefabricating their deliverables.

Nonetheless we’ve heard lots of promises of all-in-one before. The good news is this time around there’s lots of commodity technology and standards available. But if Cisco is to make a real alternative to IBM, HP, or Dell, it’s got to put make datacenter or cloud-in-the box reality.

Microsoft: Glasnost or “We Will Bury You?”

ZDNet’s Jason Perlow had some interesting observation upon returning from Microsoft’s Technology Summit last week. For starters, Perlow noted Microsoft’s acknowledgement and implied support for the work that Novell’s Miguel de Icaza and colleagues on the Mono project are directing at porting key Microsoft desktop technologies to Linux. He speculated that Microsoft’s Open Source Lab’s work to achieve interoperability with key open source projects like Samba and Apache is being driven is not only the result of EU directives to open up its interfaces, but also to increase visibility and utilization of Microsoft platforms on open source systems.

But Perlow felt uncomfortable equating these olive branches with Glasnost. “It would be difficult to say that Steve Ballmer is Microsoft’s Mikhail Gorbachev – his patent and intellectual property saber rattling in the past year would seem to put him more firmly in the Nikita Khrushchev shoe-banging ‘We will bury you’ on the podium camp rather than be characterized like the reformative and cuddly Gorby.” Per our observations a couple weeks back at EclipseCon, it looks more like ping pong diplomacy, where Microsoft is testing the waters for a market where open source has gone mainstream.

Open Sourciness

We noted last week that JBoss seems to be undergoing some generational pains, as it strives to morph from an open source products company to an enterprise open source products company. So its formal announcements covered the enterprise tack: something called Enterprise Acceleration that performs the basic blocking an tackling to show enterprises, ISVs, and systems integrators alike that nobody will get fired for buying JBoss. And then there were the pronouncements to the faithful that, while JBoss is trying to go enterprise, that it won’t forget its roots.

First, the enterprise stuff. So-called Enterprise Acceleration is a new bunch of consulting services, testbeds, benchmarks, and best practices for reducing the risk of migration, covering migration, interoperability, and performance tuning. Plus, for ISVs and systems integrators, a center that formally certifies that third party applications indeed run properly on JBoss.

There’s little startling about the announcement. Given that JBoss has always pitched itself as the challenger, and that its product has cultivated a reputation as a compact, flexible body of code that just actually works, the burden of proof is on JBoss to document that it can scale up and won’t jeopardize security.

JBoss also announced its new SOA platform, but there’s less to the announcement than met the eye because JBoss already had some of the pieces. The SOA platform announcement was that its ESB (enterprise service bus) was now ready enough to be bundled with JBoss’ existing JBPM (business process management) offering. We emphasize “ready enough,” because the ESB is stil technically in beta. According to Crag Muzilla, vice president of the middleware business, the core is in place, but still lacks some tooling.

But back to the growing pains. Although the acquisition by Red Hat is almost two years old, as we noted last week, the move has not gone down smoothly with the customer base. At first blush, the concerns are over licensing and support, but they belie a general feeling that Red Hat is trying to tame JBoss’s culture. Muzilla likened it to sibling rivalry, where the younger brother resents the older one for growing up too quickly.

Addressing questions about whether the deal was good business for JBoss, Muzilla admits that sales drops following the deal were the result of turnover in the sales teams and inadequate cross training of Red Hat reps, who didn’t fully understand the JBoss business. But he claimed that JBoss is on the upswing, with business increasing for each of the last three quarters, and that the accounts teams have been repopulated with salespeople from the likes of BEA and Cape Clear – who obviously should the business.

Although both began and still conduct business as open source product companies, arguably, Red Hat was around commercializing a support model for external innovation around Linux, whereas JBoss’s open source model is more about what we have called in the past the captive model, in that it was largely about its own project – or projects such as Hibernate where it hired the leaders and brought them in house.

CTO and Fleury contemporary Sacha Labourey apologized for “a complete shutdown of communications” that exacerbated the problem with JBoss faithful, admitting that JBoss management was too preoccupied with integration into Red Hat. When it came to communications, JBoss swung from one extreme to another. He conceded that when JBoss spilt off the enterprise product from the core open source project on, that many of its best customers were not even aware of the split. Admittedly, the turning down of the volume reflected a move to make the company more enterprise-friendly, where customers with large deals value product stability over nightly innovation.

And, with the splitting of, the goal was to align JBoss’ open source business with that of Red Hat, which has two separate streams: one for that stabilizes code for enterprise licenses, and the other the purer open source model where source code is updated nightly. Labourey took pains to point out to us that, although JBoss was trying to align itself more closely to the Red Hat business model, that JBoss would retain its uniqueness. Admittedly, the differences were a bit subtle to our ears: While Red Hat Enterprise Linux is only publicly available in binary, for JBoss, you can get access to the source code if you go to the side, where it’s frozen in an image.

To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, some open source technologies have more open sourciness than others.

Generation Gap

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.

Table Scraps

By now, you’ve probably grown pretty jaded to all the hype touting the benefits of open source. But a recent poll of members of the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG) provided some hard numbers explaining how one pillar of the market – Oracle database users – views the role and prospects for open source.

Just to clarify, IOUG is the Oracle database users group, and should not be confused with OAUG, which serves the ERP and CRM base.

By the way, did we neglect to mention that this open source survey of Oracle database customers was sponsored by MySQL? It conjures up an image of a mouse sneaking into a kitchen during Thanksgiving dinner and feasting on the scraps. In fact, that’s exactly the picture that was painted by the survey.

Open source use is wide but not terribly deep. Roughly 90% of respondents said they used open source software or were planning to, but it’s mostly for the commodity stuff sitting below the application layer where most organizations imbed their real value-add. Only 4% said they used open-source-based enterprise apps, like SugarCRM. Not surprisingly, the most popular open source offerings were the Apache web server, which happens to underlie most J2EE middle tier products like IBM WebSphere; and of course, Linux. In essence, customers look to open source for cheap plumbing that simply works.

And that certainly applies to databases. This being a survey of Oracle database users, it’s obvious that nobody’s replacing Oracle with MySQL or any of its open source cousins. But if you’ve got a satellite web app, there’s little risk – or cost – in using MySQL. Significantly, 20% of Oracle users surveyed reported having open source databases larger than 50 GBytes. That 20% is kind of a funny figure. If you’re an optimist, you’ll point to it as proof positive that open source databases are getting ready for prime time; if you’re a cynic, you’ll claim that the figure proves that they will never rise higher than supporting roles.

One of the survey’s conclusions was that customers embrace open source because it’s cheap, but that there are limits to that embrace because customers perceive that support or security are not yet at parity with established commercial offerings.

So how then to explain the fact that the series of freebie “Express” database offerings from the usual suspects – Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft – hasn’t dented open source use? If you’re only in it for the cost savings, theoretically Express should give you the best of both worlds: cheap and proven. Yet, 80% of Oracle Express users in this survey said they are still using open source databases as well. Evidently, Express users view these products as stepping stones where vendors strictly limited scalability so as not to cannibalize their core product, whereas they believe that open source vendors won’t purposely cripple their products going forward.

Obviously, nobody dismisses the viability of open source for basic commodity tasks, but when it comes to mission critical systems, Oracle users still know whose throat they really want to choke.

Account Control, Stupid

The cat’s out of the bag. Rumor mills — encouraged by Oracle — centered on Oracle buying a Linux distribution, like Ubuntu. Instead, they’re co-opting it, offering “Unbreakable” support of Red Hat Linux. The tale of Ellison’s stab in Red Hat’s back has prompted some colorful reaction, of which we especially enjoyed Ingres CTO Dave Dargo’s no-BS BS take.

While Oracle’s means were a bit surprising, the end shouldn’t have been: Oracle wants complete account control of the enterprise back end. They’ve made little secret that they want to own the enterprise back end, and back in the spring, Ellison himself told the Financial Times that he’d like to have a complete stack.

You can chart the move up. From the database tier, Oracle began building and later acquiring its way to the application tier. And after aborted moves to place Java support inside the database, they’ve made a concerted effort to conquer the middle tier. That leaves the client — where Oracle made an anemic play in the late 90s — and the OS.

Oracle’s foray into Linux will likely end up a loss leader, but the impact will obviously be more modest than to Red Hat (witness yesterday’s 15% share price drop).

We don’t believe for a minute Oracle’s competitive positioning that “Unbreakable Linux” will be half the cost and more responsive than Red Hat’s. For enterprise licenses, likely the core of Oracle’s thrust, the difference is only $500, or 20% off Red Hat. And, while there’s little doubt Oracle can muster the resources, as eWeek Linux watcher Steven Vaughan-Nichols points out, Oracle doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to supporting its own database bug fixes.

In all likelihood, the brunt of the business will come from Oracle’s existing database or application customers who currently have or are considering Linux.

But the real target of all this isn’t Red Hat, it’s IBM. Until now, IBM has enjoyed a free ride. Sure, they’ve plowed hundreds of engineers into Linux-enabling their products and services — an investment dwarfing that of Red Hat et al. But they’ve profited nicely from an extensive Linux and open source ecosystem that repopulates mainframes, spurs blade sales, and provides opportunities for Global Services. They’re making much fatter margins off Linux than Red Hat or Novell.

At the end of the day, while Red Hat may wind up collateral damage, IBM may finally be prodded into assuming the loss leader business as well.

The Secret Is Out

After a much publicized courting, JBoss has become engaged, but to someone else. Nonetheless the chase was a bit fun while it lasted. In fact, just about anything about JBoss president Marc Fleury is amusing because of the way he has personalized his venture’s David and Goliath saga.

But make no doubt about it, this is serious business. As we noted several months back, although sentiment is hardly unanimous, open source is a business, not a Robin Hood crusade.

While Fleury went on baiting folks like IBM in public, his quest to make JBoss the next dominant Java platform was deadly serious. A couple months back, the rumored suitor was Oracle, which has started its own open (or to borrow a term from BEA, blended) source strategy. While we could imagine Fleury et al wanting to cash out, we had a hard time imagining how JBoss would have stayed relevant inside Oracle, where it would have been another side show.

Although JBoss and Red Hat follow different open source business models, we think this one’s a much better fit because JBoss becomes Red Hat’s de facto middleware stack, rather than just another piece.

For JBoss, this is of course the natural exit strategy for any up and coming startup that’s hitting the wall. For Red Hat, it’s another piece in the puzzle to become the de facto platform alternative to Microsoft. We wouldn’t be surprised if database was next on Red Hat’s list, as analyst Brenda M. Michelson of Patricia Seybold Group ventured.

Or as fellow analyst Keith Harrison-Broninski suggested, it’s another step in the Microsoft alternative building itself into another Microsoft. He suggested that in the short run, developers would embrace this deal, but he’s worried about the implications for the long run. We agree with part of his sentiments.

As we’ve noted previously, the popularity of open source isn’t because it’s open source, but because it’s a way for customers to acquire commodity technology for a commodity price. Admittedly, as open source powers like Red Hat bulk up their spread and penetration, there’s always the question of vendor lock-in, which in turn leads to price escalation.

But somehow we doubt that here. Recalling the argument of Sun’s Jonathan Schwartz about Red Hat forking Linux and other open source technology, the open source community pretty well debunked that myth. The binaries might be protected, but not the source code. OK, that’s a geek argument. But at a more important level, if Red Hat got too big for its britches, we’d expect IBM to up its ante in Novell or buy SuSE outright to keep Linux commodity -– which is exactly what customers want. Heck, it’s already done that with Gluecode, built by several former JBoss developers, although for now IBM has largely kept it caged for fear of undercutting their WebSphere franchise.

Red Hat has had a checkered history when it’s come to acquisitions. One of its best was the acquisition of Netscape’s LDAP directory when AOL was divesting the technology in the late 90s. But it also wrote off four other acquisitions in the post 9/11 funk of 2001.

But we think this one’s more in the Netscape Directory mold, in that it adds an obvious piece to the platform. And it bulks up what will hopefully remain a commodity alternative for enterprise customers.

The World’s Worst Kept Secret

Hostile takeovers aside, usually acquisitions are supposed to be closely guarded secrets. So what are we supposed to make of the mating dance between Oracle and JBoss that’s playing out in the media and blogs?

There’s no question that Oracle is serious about open source. They’ve already snapped up a couple of open source storage engines that threaten to rob open source database rival MySQL of its oxygen. There’s also little question about JBoss being in play.

As we’ve mentioned previously, it’s not unusual for vendors to open source orphaned products, or technologies that are on-ramps for their core platforms. But this is different.

Larry Ellison is not reverting to form in trying to take out a couple potential rivals. He — and IBM actually — are buying real products.

Does mean that open source has finally become a viable business?

According to a Forbes online filing, the answer’s no. Likening the open source rush to the dot com bubble, Forbes says that this time around, customers are also placing themselves at risk. According to an eWeek account of an elite CIO panel last fall, few considered open source technology or business models adequately proven.

The Forbes article added that open source wasn’t such a great deal for vendors either. “Problem is, most people just take the free stuff and run.” Exhibit A? Barely 3% to 5% of JBoss customers buy support contracts.

If the upside is limited, why are adults like IBM and Oracle buying? If it’s so risky for customers, why are they downloading open source like crazy?

It first helps to understand what kind of open source we’re talking about, because there are several different go to market models.

The first is the spontaneous community, made famous by Linus Torvalds of Linux. A moral authority gently governs the chaos over a technology that, arguably, nobody owns.

Excluding Red Hat, the only vendors making money are those for which Linux is not their core business.

Then there’s the foundation model, a more formalized version of the spontaneous community, where a third party non-profit like Apache, ObjectWeb, or Eclipse (which morphed into one) acts as arbiter. Similar to the community model, except that vendors forgo ownership or royalty potential because they feel it can help build their core business (which is usually something else).

Finally, there’s the captive model, like JBoss, where the vendor still controls all or most of the open source project, charging only for support. The main difference here is that the open sourced technology usually constitutes the vendor’s core livelihood.

Once you understand what kind of open source model is being used, you can better understand the risks and rewards for customers and vendors alike. For the community and foundation models, risk is inverse to critical mass. When more household brands support the technology, vendors face the normal risks of competition, while customers have less worry over the safety of their investments.

The captive model is where the issues get more interesting because either there’s something unique about the technology, or the vendor is in poor position to spread the risk. And if the vendor is at risk, so is the customer.

A subset of these cases is where the technology is mature, like Postgres, but the market isn’t. In that instance, you’re relying on more typical dynamics of startup markets, where the issue is the vendor’s ability to execute. At least the vendor doesn’t have to add heavy product development costs to the equation.

So if there’s all this risk, what’s in it for customers? In a word: price. While high-end platforms like WebSphere or Oracle pack plenty of punch for mission critical back ends, when it comes to exposing your business to the web, you’re not going to pay a lot for this muffler. You just want a product that does its job and that’s that. And if the technology is pretty standard – like Linux or J2EE – there’s relatively little downside if you have to switch vendors.

As we noted a couple weeks back, some trends are simply too important for vendors to ignore. If you’re a vendor and you see commodity platforms like Linux, JBoss, or Ajax snowball out of nowhere, you’ve got to get in on the action. You want the hearts and minds of renegade developers because down the pike, they’ll be the establishment. And that’s when you’ve got to ask, how much is the future really worth to you?