Red Hat CEO Tells LinuxCon Crowd What Makes Linux Stand Out

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, explains at LinuxCon how the open-source management style works.

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst

TORONTO—Five years ago, on the 20th anniversary of Linux, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst delivered a keynote address at LinuxCon. Today, he returned to the LinuxCon stage here to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of Linux, bringing a message not all that different from the one he shared in 2011.

The Linux world, however, is a different place in 2016, with one-time mortal foe Microsoft now embracing the open-source model. Whitehurst briefly shared the keynote stage with Wim Coekaerts, corporate vice president of enterprise open source at Microsoft, which is something that wouldn't have happened five years ago. Red Hat and Microsoft today partner at multiple levels, as the message and value of open source has continued to expand.

During his keynote, Whitehurst said that it's hard to talk about the history of Red Hat without talking about the history of Linux and vice versa, as the two are very much intertwined. Back in the 1990s when Red Hat got started a few years after Linux's birth, Whitehurst said his company didn't have a great business model. At one point, Red Hat actually tried to sell shrink-wrapped boxed software at big box retailers. Around 2001, Red Hat first introduced the enterprise open-source software model that is the core of the company's business today. The basic idea is to bundle open-source software together, test and certify the software, and then provide multiple years of enterprise-grade support.

With Linux in the enterprise, Whitehurst said he would have expected it to be a bottoms-up adoption cycle with developers bringing the technology in first, but that's not what happened. Whitehurst said that Red Hat has been very successful with a "top down" approach too, with some big early wins for Red Hat Enterprise Linux with investment banks running large trading platforms. The reasons why the investment banks chose Linux had nothing to do with open-source ideals, either.

"Investment banks don't typically care about freedom; they don't really even care that much about cost. They care about hav[ing] the best features and functionality," Whitehurst said. "It turns out Linux on x86 is faster than Unix on RISC."

It wasn't just investment banks that saw the benefits of Linux. Many large organizations have simply found Linux to be faster and cheaper than legacy alternatives, according to Whitehurst. On the speed front, Whitehurst recounted that a decade ago the U.S. Navy had a need for a real-time operating system to help with missile defense systems. The work to enable Linux for real-time operations also was attractive to the financial community for high-speed transactions. Today, Linux powers many of the world's leading stock exchanges, including NYSE, where Red Hat is listed. Whitehurst said that the Navy's needs that helped push Linux forward to the benefit of the financial community is just one example of an odd combination that helped create Linux's success.

Beyond just the technical innovations, Whitehurst echoed many comments he made five years ago about how Linux and open source can be a model that works beyond software. In today's LinuxCon keynote, he said that the open-source model can help define how modern organizations can coordinate thousands of people to get things done.

"Traditional management is about coordinating people's behavior to get common things done. And Linux created a different way to do that," Whitehurst said. "Red Hat has applied that open-source model to our whole business. It's not just a great way to build software—it's a way to manage a company."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.