When it comes to enterprise open source software vendor Red Hat, one might assume its biggest competitors to be Oracle, Novell, Microsoft, or even IBM.
However, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst sees virtualization software vendor VMware as "our largest competitor," he said in an interview after his keynote at the Red Hat Summit, being held this week in Boston.
It is not so much that Red Hat salespeople will bump into VMware salespeople at the offices of potential customers, but that the companies share an overall vision of cloud computing, even as they differ on the approach of providing cloud services.
"When you start thinking about who is defining cloud-based architectures, it's us and them," he said. "We're the only two companies that have the components to really do cloud."
While admitting kinship with VMware, Whitehurst was quick to point out what he saw as the flaws in VMware's approach. "Technically, it's a perfectly fine vision. Commercially, I worry about the lock-in and VMware defining the stack," he said.
Cloud computing favours open source, Whitehurst argued. "Modular layered architectures are built on open source," he said. He noted that the typical proprietary licence models make it difficult to build a cloud, given the licensing and lock-in concerns. "Who in their right mind would roll out a 50,000 server environment locked into one vendor? If you buy ESX and three years later you get a renewal, how much will [VMware] charge you?" VMware declined to comment for this story.
While the Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system is widely used in enterprises, the company only recently introduced its own virtualisation software, a commercial version of the open source Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM). VMware dominates the market for server virtualisation software.
At the Red Hat Summit, the company announced its Cloud Computing Foundations, a set of software, reference architecture and consulting services that it says can help organisations run hybrid clouds, that is to say run applications that can be easily migrated from their own data centre's private clouds to public clouds.
At the press conference announcing the Foundations, Red Hat head of virtualisation Navin Thadani claimed that Red Hat's virtualisation package, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization (RHEV) offers most of the functionality of a VMware ESX set-up - with the notable exception of live migration - but is less expensive than VMware's software.
But the company also stressed that customers could use VMware with Foundations as well. "With Cloud Foundations, you can build a Red Hat Cloud on ESX. We're not saying you have to buy our whole stack," he said. "You don't have to tie the hypervisor to the management tools. Those are separate decisions."
While Red Hat plays down the choice of the hypervisor, VMware has been playing down the importance of the OS - Red Hat's chief source of subscription fees - in the cloud stack.
In a conference held on Wednesday in San Francisco, VMware president and CEO Paul Maritz minimised the role that OSes play in virtualisation-heavy data centres. Developers will be more focused on frameworks like Ruby on Rails and VMware's own Spring rather than on OSes, Maritz said. VMware is not completely forgetting about OSes, however.
Earlier this month, VMware announced a partnership with Red Hat competitor Novell to use that company's SUSE Enterprise Linux as the base OS for all of its virtual appliances. The company will also be offer the distribution to users of VMware's VSphere, so they can use it as a guest OS.
Beyond VMware, Whitehurst did not admit to seeing any other serious competitors in the cloud space, at least those that offer a full stack. He did recognize that Microsoft offers customers the ability to run their software both on premise and in the cloud with Azure, but downplayed Azure by saying that customers would fear being locked in by Azure's Microsoft-centric software stack.
In two or three years, Whitehurst predicts, virtualization and cloud tools will still be a minority of Red Hat's revenue, compared to subscription fees of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, though it will be a "substantial" minority of the revenue by then.
On Tuesday, Red Hat reported gains in both revenue and net income for its fiscal 2011 first quarter. It reported net income of US$24.1 million - up from $18.5 million a year earlier - and revenue of $209 million, of which $179 million was from subscription revenue.