Aiming for the Clouds: The Red Hat Q&A

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Given my travel schedule of late (the very same one that prompted more than one “are you dead?” pings), I’m operating on a bit of a time delay, so if you’re wondering whether something has gone terribly wrong considering that I’m covering “news” dating back to early November, do not adjust your dial. I’ve just been that busy.

But I could not let the Red Hat news pass without comment. Because the November 7th briefing call overlapped with the IBM conference I was attending (more on that one later), I almost skipped the call but fortunately was tipped to its significance in the nick of time by a commenter in #redmonk. Eschewing lunch, I retreated to my room and dialed in for the latest on Red Hat’s plans. I was not disappointed: Red Hat’s news transcended the usual pedestrian product updates. I’m hesistant to call them revolutionary, as none of it is precisely new – particularly from a technical perspective, but it was at least worth the price of admission. Though that, admittedly, was zero.

To explore the news in more detail, let’s try a Q&A.

Q: Before we continue, anything to disclose?
A: Well, Red Hat is not a RedMonk customer, but certain competitors of Red Hat are, including Canonical, Microsoft and Sun. As for the Amazon component of the news, they are not a customer but our production backup solution is based on their S3 offering. I think that’s about it.

Q: For those that missed it, can you summarize the news?
A: Well, there were a couple of releases accompanying Red Hat’s call on the 7th, but the two most interesting pieces of news as far as I’m concerned were the announcement of its Appliance Operating System (AOS) and the revelation that Red Hat would be available on top of Amazon’s EC2 platform.

Q: What is your expectation of the impact of these developments?
A: Before we get to that, it’s worth considering what Red Hat itself expects. Senor Shankland apparently heard the same thing I did on the call, as he quotes Paul Cormier (EVP worldwide engineering) as saying the following: “We will more than double our market share to power more than 50 percent of the world’s servers by 2015.” It’s the lack of qualifiers there that’s of particular interest. He’s not talking about specific operating system markets, or workloads, or other contexts that would play to Red Hat’s strengths; he’s seemingly talking about better than half of all servers, anywhere. Aggressive, despite the firm’s admitted dominance of the commercial Linux marketplace, especially here in the US. Windows, after all, is still growing apace in spite of the best efforts of a variety of competitors, Linux-oriented and otherwise.

Q: Let’s dig into some of the details, then. Let’s start from the back: what’s the significance of the Amazon/EC2 partnership?
A: While some are inclined to dismiss EC2 and other competitive offerings as little more than tweaked hosting, I’m convinced that the model represents the – or at least a – future of hardware consumption. In awarding the Amazon folks my technical achievement award for 2006, I outlined the promise of Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS) as follows:

Software-as-a-Service is – somewhat justifiably – all the rage these days, with even mainstream customers increasingly comfortable using online services to make up for the shortcomings of rich client systems. That they have succeeded to the degree that they have is proof positive that convenience – low barriers to entry, in RedMonk-speak – wins more often than it won’t. Software-as-a-Service applications, after all, have serious limitations when compared to their client side brethren, but they’re just so easy to start using.

So why should we doubt that the hardware equivalent of SaaS has similar potential? If the latency between “I need storage” or “I need a server” is a credit card and downloading and installing something like JungleDisk, well, how could that not be of interest?

In other words, EC2 represents an extremely low friction solution to the problem of hardware provisioning.

Q: Why has it flown so far beneath the radar, then?
A: A variety of reasons, including the fact that the toolsets available for the Xen-based platform at launch time were, to put it kindly, basic. But undoubtedly questions of commercial support are a factor; without Red Hat, EC2 was relegated to serving a minority of the enterprise commerical Linux market, because that’s a market more or less owned by Red Hat.

This announcement, of course, changes that, and is therefore a potential win not just for Red Hat but for Amazon as well. The former is now able to expand its addressable market; at worst Red Hat is now an option for the startups and other early adopters flocking to EC2, at best it’s one of the first commercial players to offer customers of all shapes and sizes the ability to embrace a next generation architectural model, whether that’s on a tactical or strategic basis.

As for Amazon, well, obviously they’re viable players in markets where they were not previously.

Q: So the news here is purely technical?
A: No indeed. The economics are, if anything, more interesting. While the math is not likely to be universally in favor of the Cloud – Red Hat’s designation for the offering – or traditional models, it’s certain that the former introduces pricing flexibility that was previously absent. In addition to a monthly fee, Red Hat will charge hourly rates – at a premium over the vanilla EC2 offerings – along with bandwidth fees. Will this be preferable in all situations? Hardly. But it does give potential Red Hat customers a pay-as-you-go offering to be deployed alongside of, or in certain cases in lieu of, traditional models. It’s also encouraging that some of the relatively artificial distinctions in enterprise software pricing – per socket, per CPU, etc – will have more value based alternatives to compete with. The collapsing of hardware and software pricing will be an interesting trend to watch going forward.

Q: Pricing, then, is likely to be the driving factor in when or if customers choose the Cloud offering?
A: No. The nature of the workload must also be considered, because for all of the advantages of EC2 from a flexibility standpoint, it does not come without a cost. Unlike machines deployed locally, as an example, the virtual images located in Amazon’s datacenters will have a higher latency to access. It’s difficult to imagine, as an example, using a remote EC2 image as a database slave for production-type workloads. But for each use case for which EC2 is not a viable candidate, there’s likely to be another for which it is eminently suitable. A reasonable expectation is that forward thinking larger institutions will consume at first a small percentage of cloud based services as an experiment to determine where and for what they are appropriate, then up their commitments as their comfort levels with the technology rise.

Q: Changing tacks for a moment, what can you tell us about the AOS news?
A: Very little thus far, as due to my schedule of late I haven’t managed to connect directly with Red Hat on the subject, but it seems that Red Hat is targeting much the same opportunity that rPath and Ubuntu’s JEOS version are: a platform version optimized for a particular use case, be that virtualization or something else.

The idea behind these technologies is simple: general purpose operating systems like RHEL, Solaris or Windows bring with them significant advantages in simplifying the certification, maintenance, and support problems, but bring with them significant disadvantages. Most obviously, they suffer from the classic “Jack of All Trades is the Master of None” problem. As an example, what is the purpose of including software dedicated to specific hardware support if the platform won’t actually be running on hardware, as is the case in virtualization settings? These and similar arguments are trotted out by advocates of virtual appliances and custom operating systems, but while I acknowledge the logic I have serious concerns about the model’s sustainability.

Q: Sustainability in what sense?
A: Well, think of it like Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which boiled down essentially contends that individual actions may become problematic in aggregate. One person littering, as an example, is of minor consequence. A thousand people littering, on the other hand, is a serious problem.

Such is the case, to me, with virtual appliances. Just because it makes sense to embrace a virtual appliance in for an application does not mean that it’s appropriate to adopt it for applications, pluarl. For one, you’re effectively introducing a 1:1 ratio between the applications and operating systems you support, as each customized operating system instance is different from the next, which bucks the long term trend towards general purpose operating systems. For another, you’re likely to be increasingly relying on the provider of an application for operating system type support, which they may or may not be qualified for.

All of that said, however, Red Hat and Ubuntu may be making progress towards mitigating some of the concerns.

Q: How so?
A: Well, in Ubuntu’s case it comes down to focus. Rather than support a myriad of operating system variations, they appear to have focused on a particular use case – virtualization – which does indeed benefit from a customization.

Red Hat, on the other hand, seems to be taking the approach that it will allow application providers to build as they see fit, and yet remain certified for RHEL. The latter distinction is the important piece; if vendors can certify once for both RHEL and AOS flavors, and customers are supported with equal facility in either case, the case is very compelling.

I’m skeptical that there will be no impacts to support and service, but it’s a solid move on Red Hat’s part if they can pull it off.

Q: To get back to the original question, what is your assessment of the potential impact?
A: It’s early, but November’s news was a good indication that innovation amongst economic models and deployment scenarios is still possible. Not to dismiss the importance of some of the new features of RHEL 5.1, but over the longer term I think AOS and the Cloud offering are far more important than mere bells and whistles, because they make Red Hat a competitor in markets where its penetration is currently low. Even if its success in those areas, then, is minimal, the news remains very significant.

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