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Interview: The power of open source

Stefanie Chiras, who heads up RHEL at Red Hat, discusses how open source enables enterprises to benefit from tech innovations

Industry watchers are looking at IBM’s $34bn acquisition of Red Hat and scratching their heads. Why would Big Blue spend this much on a company known for its Linux operating system (OS) distribution? IBM sees Red Hat as key to its hybrid cloud strategy, underpinned by a cross-platform operating system.

Until last July, Stefanie Chiras was a long-term IBMer, looking after chip design and, later, Power systems. She joined Red Hat just a couple of months prior to IBM’s bid to buy the Linux OS firm, taking the role of vice-president and general manager of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

Chiras describes Red Hat as a portfolio company. “Making the operating system relevant in the context of hybrid cloud is key to us,” she says. “Sometimes people forget about the things that have to fundamentally work. But when they don’t work, everything falls apart.”

Open source is the only way to keep pace with change

Looking at the pace of change in the business application market, Chiras says it is difficult for companies to predict how to protect their investment going forward and choose the right infrastructure to allow them to take on more innovative technology.

According to Chiras, enterprises are unlikely to guess what innovative applications will be coming along in five years’ time, but “what they do know is that it will run on Linux”.

She positions RHEL as the stable platform on which businesses are able to base technology innovation decisions. “What a business can be sure of is that it will be on Linux. It is the fastest growing operating system, and new applications like blockchain, AI [artificial intelligence], machine learning and deep learning are all being written on Linux.” she says.

Open source means open

For Chiras, open source code is a bit like a tree. Companies develop offshoots from the main code base, known as forks, to add functionality. This leads to one branch that is owned by a certain company, she warns, and if this code is not then fed back into the open source community, it will end up as proprietary.

Discussing the challenges enterprises face with trying to choose which IT architecture approach to take, Chiras says: “It is a complicated world. You want to maintain choice and flexibility because the world is constantly changing. This is why open source is so important, by providing customers with access to innovation and a huge amount of choice.”

“Making the operating system relevant in the context of hybrid cloud is key to us. Sometimes people forget about the things that have to fundamentally work. But when they don’t work, everything falls apart”

Stefanie Chiras, Red Hat

Chiras says every bit of code RHEL develops is fed back into the open source community. “There is always competition and pressure in open source, but its value is that it moves innovation faster [than proprietary software],” she adds.

“The upstream open source communities become the beds of innovation for everything we do. There are some misconceptions in the industry about open source. There is an onus on the customer, and on us, to ensure the integrity of open source is protected.”

Chiras believes that it will become important for customers to differentiate between what is truly open source and what is a deviation built on open source and then modified.

“If you take the open source APIs [application programming interfaces] and modify the back end, the value of using open source is compromised,” she says.

“There is an onus on the customer, and on us, to ensure the integrity of open source is protected”
Stephanie Chiras, RHEL

Even if something was derived from an open source project, Chiras says: “If you choose software with a lot of proprietary code, then you are tied to that vendor. The proprietary world will always exist. Our goal at RHEL is to provide a fully open source relationship with the customer.”

According to Chiras, RHEL’s aim is to provide a stable platform for Linux, which offers its customers the greatest level of choice for applications going forward. In terms of deployment, she says it is no longer about physical or virtual servers, private or public clouds. Businesses want the choice of bare metal deployments, virtual servers, containers, public clouds, on-premise.

“This is where Red Hat has an advantage. We have RHEL in multiple public clouds,” she says. On-premise subscriptions can be transferred to the public cloud, or new RHEL public cloud subscriptions can also be purchased.

Red Hat pools hundreds of thousands of open source projects that exist, integrates them into RHEL, then tests the final open source operating system distribution with hardware and software partners. This gives enterprises both flexibility and stability.

Evolving enterprise landscape

In a recent Red Hat blog, Chiras wrote: “Linux underpins the applications and services that help enterprises differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace.”

As Red Hat looks at what it needs to do strategically to evolve the enterprise operating system, Chiras’s strategy seems to be to enable RHEL to provide the basics to enable enterprises to step into emerging areas of technology.

Read more about Red Hat

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  • IBM is in the midst of a multi-year repositioning as it looks to offset the downturn in enterprise demand for its traditional, on-premise offerings. What does it gain from the  $34b Red Hat deal?

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