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Red Hat: Time for the Tar and Feathers?

By Paul Murphy
Oct 7, 2004 5:00 AM PT

On the road Tom he told me all about how it was reckoned I was murdered, and how pap disappeared, pretty soon, and didn't come back no more, and what a stir there was when Jim run away; and I told Tom all about our Royal Nonesuch rapscallions, and as much of the raft-voyage as I had time to; and as we struck into the town and up through the middle of it -- it was as much as half-after eight, then -- here comes a raging rush of people, with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns; and we jumped to one side to let them go by; and as they went by, I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail -- that is, I knowed it was the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn't look like nothing in the world that was human -- just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes. Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn't ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.

Red Hat: Time for the Tar and Feathers?

From: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

As con men these two pitiful rascals made their living by pretending to be what they were not, and then charging the gullible to share the illusion. A cynic might see parallels to Red Hat here: pretending to open source ideals while actually charging the MSCE community for the privilege of sharing the illusion.

The current management team at Red Hat has consistently been vocal about its agenda. The road to Microsoft, Open Source Affairs Vice President Michael Tieman has said many times, goes through Mountain View first -- meaning that he wants to take over the "Unix" server base before taking on Microsoft's desktop. Lately, however, Sun has been firing back. Here's an excerpt from a recent report in the Boston Globe:

I just don't love Red Hat."

Sun Microsystems was one of the dominant computer companies of the late-1990s Internet boom. But it has lost nearly US$4.5 billion over the past three years, hammered by an industrywide slump and growing competition from Linux.

Most Sun computers run Solaris, the company's own version of the high-powered Unix operating system. But many Solaris users have been moving to Linux to save money. Linux is an ''open source" operating system that was created by a worldwide network of volunteers and can be modified by those who use it. Linux, like other open source products, can be obtained free of charge.

But [Sun Chairman and CEO Scott] McNealy says switching to Red Hat Linux is a false economy. Even though Linux itself is free, Red Hat charges high prices for customer service and support. ''You can run Solaris for 20 to 30 percent of the cost of 'free,' " McNealy said.

McNealy stressed that Linux wasn't the enemy. He noted that Sun is one of the leading contributors of free software to open-source projects, that Sun sells computers equipped with Linux, and that the company plans to release the next version of Solaris as an open-source product. ''Open source is not a threat," he said, just Red Hat. ''They're a competitor," McNealy said, ''and we're going to blow them out of the water if we can."

McNealy stressed that Linux wasn't the enemy. He noted that Sun is one of the leading contributors of free software to open source projects, that Sun sells computers equipped with Linux and that the company plans to release the next version of Solaris as an open source product. ''Open source is not a threat," he said, just Red Hat. ''They're a competitor," McNealy said, ''and we're going to blow them out of the water if we can."

Hatchet Job

As an aside, this is actually an expert hatchet job. Notice how the quotations attributed to McNealy are distributed to make the reporter's objective voice -- Sun has been "hammered," Solaris users are moving to Linux, and so on -- more credible. Less subtly, Sun is discussed in the past tense ("was one of the dominant computer companies of the late-1990"), McNealy is presented as lying: "[Linux is] ... free of charge ... but McNealy says switching to Red Hat Linux is a false economy," and the closing sound bite has been carefully chosen to make him sound like an impotent braggart: "blow them out of the water, if we can."

Years ago everybody I knew who tried Linux also tried Red Hat, but then Red Hat began to turn itself into the new Microsoft and people able to make their own decisions promptly switched to SuSE. Today, most have moved on to Debian -- my own favorite after Caldera became too hot to mention.

With each such transition, however, some people remained behind to form a core group of loyalists whose needs and expectations then drove the marketing and technology evolution of their chosen companies.

In Red Hat's case, that group appears to have been dominated by the people who hate Unix but are forced to use it anyway. Red Hat Enterprise server, for example, is a common choice among data processing professionals whose IBM loyalties led them first to HP-UX as a way of avoiding having to deal with DEC and then to Windows NT, only to now find one dead-ended and the other worthless. In this community, high support costs are the norm, right alongside a vocal commitment to words like "Enterprise" and a high tolerance for failing software development projects.

Cost Consideration

The result is what we see: Red Hat's support fees are in line with Microsoft's and the sales focus is on tools and "Enterprise" servers -- even on uni-processor PCs. It's not unusual, therefore, to see a business with a hundred or more Red Hat servers in rack mounts, each running one application on the NT model, and each with full support at over US$2,499 per year. McNealy's quite right: those people could run Solaris (SPARC hardware included) for 20 to 30 percent of the support costs to which the free Red Hat software commits them.

On the other hand the reality is that those people are nuts. The right thing to do is to abandon the Windows model, run multiple applications on each machine, and only buy support for the unit used by the systems administrator for testing and debugging. That way you consolidate the hardware while minimizing total support costs -- going from, for example, 100 servers at $249,900 per year to 35 unsupported copies and one support contract at $2,499.

Do that, and McNealy's wrong. But of course Red Hat's community generally doesn't do that -- because those who knew enough to understand that Unix software support contracts extend the administrator's abilities and not the system license also knew enough to have switched to Debian or Solaris long ago.

As a result Red Hat's customer base is more and more becoming a self referencing community that sells itself Unix by attacking Unix and reinforces that perception by making management, and thus shareholders, pay Microsoft's license and support rates for a free product.

Unix Market

Personally, I think Huck's tarry rascals would have approved, but the odd thing is that I do too, because Red Hat is growing the market for Unix while taking little, if anything, away from Sun.

Although I'm sure McNealy and Tieman never said anything of the kind, I'm reminded of another line from Huckleberry Finn, something the Duke says just after meeting the King for the first time:

"Old man," said the young one, "I reckon we might double-team it together; what do you think?" (Chapter 19)

Sports teams play this game all the time. Fanning the embers of an intercity rivalry between cities like Edmonton and Calgary into flame (for example: What's the only good thing to come out of Calgary? Highway 2 North.) sells seats for both "our" Eskimos and "their" Stampeders, even though, in reality (I think), most of the players on both teams are American.

So does Sun really compete with Red Hat? I don't think so. In the first place Sun will cheerfully sell you Red Hat Linux for anywhere from $299 to $2,499, and in the second, people who pick Red Hat on x86 usually aren't ready for Solaris anyway.

The real rivalry is between Sun and IBM, with the latter trying to use Linux as a competitive tool to leverage services sales and which is far more affected by Red Hat's Microsoft replacement pricing than Sun. From IBM's perspective, Red Hat's success comes from poaching on their territory, but Sun's senior people probably see Red Hat's customer base more as a kind of farm team for downstream Solaris sales then as a competitor for the current revenue dollar.


Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.


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