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Executive interview: Melissa Di Donato, CEO, SUSE

New CEO of the world’s largest independent open source company wants to make SUSE more innovative and help businesses to modernise traditional IT

Just over six months ago, in July 2019, Melissa Di Donato took over the role of CEO at SUSE. Having headed up proprietary software businesses, Di Donato says her first six months as head of the Linux open source distribution company “has been exciting”.

In March 2019, Micro Focus sold SUSE to growth investor EQT for $2.5bn. Just as Di Donato began her new role at the open source operating system company,  SUSE’s nearest rival, Red Hat, was acquired by IBM for $34bn.

Before joining SUSE, Di Donato was chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at SAP, where she was responsible for the worldwide revenue, profit and customer satisfaction of the company’s digital core solutions. She also held senior executive positions at Salesforce and was recognised for her contribution to growing global organisations by winning the 2018 Digital Masters Award for Excellence in Commercial Management.

Although her experience is in proprietary software companies, Di Donato says: “I come as a user of open source software, a customer of open source software.” In the late 1990s, she was a developer, working on the Linux version of SAP.

Since joining SUSE, Di Donato says she has been around the world two or three times and has visited 97 customers. The tour gave her the opportunity to understand a bit more about what customers actually want from SUSE. “I wanted to know what have we done well, how can we get the community to focus on customer evolution,” she says.

Having visited 97 organisations, Di Donato says she hopes SUSE can provide a technology environment to make applications work in a way that has so far been too difficult to achieve.

“Rather than moving to virtual machines, containers and serverless computing, we have to be good at simplifying IT”
Melissa Di Donato, SUSE

The feedback from customers has shown her that SUSE is not being innovative enough and is not the IT company they would automatically turn to partner with on technology innovation. The customers she spoke to also said they wanted to simplify IT. 

“What is happening? Customers have spent the last 25 years gaining a very complex IT environment,” she says. 

As organisations start their IT journey in the second decade of the new millennium, Di Donato believes a new approach to technology is needed. In her experience, the IT environment is incredibly complex and the IT industry is building on this complexity, making matters worse, so that customers are unable to modernise their infrastructure effectively and move to cloud-native architecture.

“Rather than moving to virtual machines, containers and serverless computing, we have to be good at simplifying IT,” she says.

Read more about open source in the enterprise

The IT industry loves paradigm shifts. During the last quarter of a century, distributed computing has gone from the common object request broker architecture to service-oriented architecture and now microservices and serverless computing. Each has required different tooling and application rewrites, and applications built using older architectures are not simply dumped when a new approach is introduced.

So organisations end up with growing levels of complexity, spanning multiple generations of industry paradigm shifts. Di Donato wants IT architectures to become more like Lego bricks.

“We have to create modular computing components,” she says. “Today, in order to replace a brick in the wall, I have to replace the whole wall.”  Instead, she says, it should be possible to modernise the IT infrastructure to support current needs and future needs, without having to rebuild the infrastructure from scratch.

While the likes of Microsoft and IBM endeavour to build out multicloud IT architectures as part of their respective software stacks and product roadmaps, Di Donato believes a Lego brick-style architecture would break the link that makes it hard for IT departments to swap architectural components from one IT provider and replace them with alternatives or even newer paradigms.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, the hyperscale cloud providers represent both an opportunity and a threat for open source businesses. On the one hard, public clouds can broaden the market for open source products, but at the same time, managed services provided by the hyperscale providers can undermine some open source software-as-a-service (SaaS) business models.

Cloud success

Discussing the risks and opportunities, Di Donato says: “Cloud providers have been a great source of success for SUSE. We work very well with them. It is coopetition.” She believes the more competition that exists in a market, the better it is for everyone. 

“The operating system I dream of is one that will run modern computing applications that AWS [Amazon Web Services] simply cannot handle,” says Di Donato.

She believes many organisations will not risk running business-critical applications solely on the public cloud, and adds: “Our customers run their Oracle, SAP or other mission-critical [workloads] on a robust open source environment like SUSE.”

IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat made SUSE the world’s biggest independent open source company. The company says it has seen a surge in its application delivery subscription revenue, which jumped by 299% year on year. Cloud revenue has increased by 64%, driven by cloud providers such as AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure.

SUSE’s revenue is about $400m, but Di Donato hopes this will more than double to $1bn by 2023. To get there, she says: “Our traditional customers have not modernised their IT. We want to help them to accelerate, scale and run their businesses better.”

According to Di Donato, 80% of SUSE’s customers have yet to move their traditional IT to a more modern cloud-native architecture.

Beyond simplifying and modernising application infrastructure, she sees SUSE as an operating system that runs everywhere from the edge to the cloud. For instance, she says most of GE’s computerised tomography and mammography machines run SUSE. It is also the operating system that powers BMW’s data centres.

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