Red Hat's Challenge

To bolster growth, Red Hat must pursue the high-volume Linux space. 

Five years ago, Red Hat sent a shock wave through the Linux community when it announced a new bleeding-edge development pace for its flagship distribution, Red Hat Linux.

Starting with Red Hat Linux 9, which was soon rebranded as Fedora Core, Red Hat forced its users to choose between the stable, supported and per-system fee-toting Red Hat Enterprise Linux and a fast-moving, community-supported and fee-free distribution.

At the time, the move was widely regarded as Red Hat turning its back on the high-volume, general-purpose Linux market in favor of the lower-hanging fruit of Unix-to-Linux conversions in large enterprises, typified by banks and other big financial institutions. And while the action of canceling its flagship support-optional Linux distribution spoke loudly enough, Red Hat tossed in, for good measure, some unkind words for Linux's highest-volume aspirations-those concerning Linux on the desktop.

In late 2003, Matthew Szulik, Red Hat CEO at the time, was quoted as saying Microsoft Windows was a better desktop option. Szulik confined those comments to the consumer space, but Red Hat's wafer-thin desktop options for the enterprise indicated that the biggest name in Linux wasn't ready to back desktop Linux for companies, either.

Click here to read about Red Hat's impressive 2008 earnings.

Fast-forward to today: Red Hat remains focused most keenly on the enterprise server stack, and its supported desktop offerings remain thin compared with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop and Ubuntu Linux. Based on Red Hat's current desktop Linux offerings, the company's position seems to be that Linux is not yet ready to challenge the Windows desktop in a serious way, and Red Hat may be correct.

While Linux is as good and perhaps better suited to the needs of knowledge workers who do not require Windows-only applications-a category into which I fall-the lack of an identity and management solution for Linux that's comparable to Microsoft's Active Directory and Group Policy is retarding Linux's growth.

But based so far on my tests of Red Hat's Fedora 9, which is due in late April, the pieces required to fill this gap for Linux-namely, the PolicyKit management and FreeIPA identity components that make their debut in this Fedora-are starting to fall into place.

The challenge that remains for Red Hat and Linux in general lies in extending the platform's software packaging embrace beyond open-source applications to include the works of third-party developers and internal enterprise development teams.

Red Hat has done well to focus on shoring up the core of the Linux platform and business, but if Linux is to grow beyond its data center environs and assume first-class status among volume platforms, now is the time for Linux's biggest brand to shore up its strength on the platform's periphery.

eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at