Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat

Under the Radar: How Red Hat Changed the Software Business-and Took Microsoft by Surprise by Robert Young and Wendy Goldman Rohm, just published by The Coriolis Group, has generated a "buzz" in the industry. Readers have asked these questions, and this week Bob Young sat down and responded.

Q. When did you first use Linux?

A. In 1993 on a workstation to send and receive email.

Q. What did you think of it then, and how have your thoughts changed as Linux has evolved to its present state?

A. It was not the Linux kernel that interested me in the "Linux phenomenon" in 1993. Back then and even earlier, the important open source technologies that were being widely adopted by UNIX users were: the X Window system, the GNU C and C++ Compilers, other languages such as Perl, and many of the networking technologies that became cornerstones of the Internet, including DNS and Bind, Sendmail, and ftp.

It has only been in recent years that Linux-based operating systems have become popular.

Q. What motivated you to take the plunge and start Red Hat with Marc Ewing?

A. It was the opportunity to fill a market need. The system administrators, engineers, and programmers who where managing UNIX systems and building the Internet were insisting that open source software gave them benefits that they just did not get from proprietary software vendors. For the first time, they had control over the technology they were using.

This benefit made them very enthusiastic customers of Red Hat because of our commitment to publishing all of the code we wrote under open source licenses. It was our customers' enthusiasm for what we were doing that gave Marc and me the confidence to launch Red Hat, Inc.

Q. The title of your book is Under the Radar. Red Hat as a company and many open source projects certainly slipped under Microsoft's radar for years. What was it like to work in the early days of Linux, before the term "open source" even existed? Anecdotes are welcome :)

A. Very similar to today, although on a much smaller scale and without the public recognition. We worked to build ever better versions of Red Hat Linux, to integrate more tools and applications, to develop better marketing and product distribution, and to promote open source, Linux, and Red Hat to the press. All this was done on a very tight budget.

Sometimes the budget was not quite big enough to support the development work we were undertaking. In fact, in the summer of '95, our financial distress was so obvious to our accountant that on each payday she would excuse herself to run out to do some chores.

It was not until months later, after the financial success of our Red Hat 2.0 release in the fall of that year, that she confessed she had been running her paycheck to the bank to ensure that her check cleared our meager account before any of the others. She was convinced that we did not have sufficient funds in the account to cover everyone's paycheck.

Q. How do you think a low profile benefited Red Hat and other open source companies in their formative years?

A. It didn't. It only benefited some of our larger proprietary software competitors. For example, Microsoft was able to establish significant market momentum behind their NT operating system, despite the availability of better technology in the form of open source Linux-based operating systems. But the customers were not aware of this alternative.

Q. Now that Open Source is definitely on the radar, how do you think that will affect the open source community and open source business practices? How will it affect Microsoft?

A. It will provide companies like Red Hat the ability to acquire the resources necessary to build and deploy the services to ensure our customers are successful using this technology.

Without professional services and support being available, corporate customers will continue to choose the proprietary operating systems over the Linux-based ones.

Q. Is fragmentation a danger--i.e., free software vs. open source software, and between distributors?

A. As we discuss in the appendix "The Lazy Programmer" in Under the Radar, open source projects do not have a history of fragmenting. We think that the cost of fragmenting the core projects that make up a Linux-based operating system are too great for anyone to want to consider that option.

Q. How do you view Red Hat's role in relation to other Linux distributors, in the context of the entire open source movement, and in relation to established vendors like Dell, IBM, Intel, and others?

A. Anyone who builds open source software is an ally of ours. Our competition is with the vendors of proprietary closed-source operating systems.

Large vendors like Dell and IBM are customers and distributors of our products, technology, and services. For example, IBM can support Red Hat Linux OS customers on a worldwide basis in dozens of languages. It is Red Hat's job to supply IBM with the support and services they need to successfully supply the services that our worldwide user base is looking for.

Q. What is your analysis of the greatest strengths, weaknesses, and potential quagmires for Linux at this point in time?

A. Open source is still in its infancy. The open source Linux-based operating systems like Red Hat are still very new. So the biggest challenge facing us is to ensure that all the software application developers and vendors port their applications to run on Linux.

The great strength of the open source software development model is that we can build better technology for a dramatically lower cost than the proprietary model allows. It has been by harnessing thousands of developers across the Internet that Linux-based operating systems like Red Hat's have been able to win industry awards competing against the world's largest and wealthiest software companies.

Recently we've seen an acceleration in the contribution of development effort and software tools to the inventory of open source software, so we are very optimistic about the future of this movement.

Q. How do you think Linux will evolve in the marketplace in the next few years?

A. I like to quote Linus's line on this. He simply answers: "World domination, and fast." A line he in turn stole from the Saturday morning cartoon show "Pinky and the Brain".

Q. What really excites you about open source?

A. The opportunity to materially improve the industry we are working in. Operating systems are the infrastructure of the information industry and as such are critical to the future of our society. Most of the industries our society relies on are open, whether it is the laws we operate under or the transportation systems we rely on.Open source is doing for the information industry what the American Revolution did for our system of government.

Being in a position to improve the infrastructure of our society is a very exciting opportunity.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

A. Growing Red Hat fast enough to serve the rapidly growing numbers of users of Red Hat Linux on a worldwide basis.

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