SUSE Linux top exec: Interoperability is key

Strategic partnerships, building clouds, and the economic downturn

Since April, Nils Brauckmann has had the future of enterprise Linux in his hands. That's when the Attachmate Group completed its acquisition of Novell, Inc. and split the company into two operating units: Novell and Suse. As president and GM of Suse, long-time Attachmate executive Brauckmann is responsible for bringing Suse Linux Enterprise Server and other open source products to market. In this latest installment of the IDG Enterprise CEO Interview Series, Brauckmann shared with IDGE Chief Content Officer John Gallant his views on the future of open source, his strategy for competing against Red Hat, and Suse's plans for helping customers build private and hybrid clouds. He also outlined his philosophy for working successfully with the open source community, talked about the role desktop Linux will and won't play in the enterprise, and explained where Suse's partnership will Microsoft is headed.

John Gallant: You were with Attachmate for years. For our readers who are passionate about Linux and open source, talk about why you are the right person to lead Suse into the future, and share your personal philosophy about open source and Linux in the enterprise.

Nils Brauckmann: I've been leading the Suse business unit since May, and I have a history in the company for managing sales and marketing teams and being a general manager. What I bring to the table is a sales and marketing background and a strong general business background. I have been responsible for leading smaller development teams in Europe in the past as well as serving on support teams. Overall, I have a rounded background, and that's why we think I am the right choice. We need more focus on sales and marketing, and we need more focus on communication.

I understand and see the values of open source, and we know that customers expect better total cost of ownership. They like open source Linux because it is easy to customize to unique hardware and software requirements. Customers expect a richer choice, freedom of choice. I think they see open source not only as a means to reduce total costs of ownership, but also to achieve greater levels of vendor independence. There are a lot of enterprises out there these days that try to avoid, as much as they can, being locked in with just one vendor, and engaging with open source solution is one means to achieve that. Suse Linux Enterprise is the solution that is best designed for mixed IT environments. We pride ourselves on having the most interoperable Linux operating system in the industry. We support all of the major virtualization infrastructures -- Hyper-V, VMWare, Xen. We are very interoperable not just on the technology level, but also with regards to the alliances and partnerships that we have. We are the only Linux operating system that is endorsed by VMWare, by Microsoft, and by SAP, for example, at the same time.

Gallant: Why is Suse a good fit for Attachmate and what is the direction for Suse under Attachmate?

Brauckmann: The direction is to grow it and grow it profitably. The Attachmate group has invested in powerful brands, established brands, and we want to take more solutions, more products to our large existing customer base. We share as a common purpose [to deliver] high quality, well-established solutions, backed up by support teams that provide high-quality support and are easy to do business with. Suse has been in the business a long time, and we have a reputation for very well-engineered, stable, and interoperable products.

Our reputation for service and support is good. Actually, it's outstanding. We participate in independent studies with Lighthouse Research Institute, and they suggest that if you compare us to other Linux vendors we actually have the best support. That's what customers in heterogeneous environments tell us.

That all fits into the overall philosophy of the Attachmate Group, which has a healthy portfolio of, let's say, maturing technology and more innovative technologies, growth technologies. Linux is a growth market. It's predicted to grow more than 20 percent a year for the next three to four years. Open source is still a rather innovative market spreading out to new areas.

Gallant: What are some of the things you can leverage from across the Attachmate Group? How do you benefit from being a network of companies?

Brauckmann: Being a dedicated, focused business unit allows us to be agile, to make decisions fast. Being part of a larger group gives us scale, gives us significance, gives us access to markets, to resources. Here's an example: We are a global company and we operate in remote, developing markets. Being a company with the size of $170 million in revenue, you face limitations about where can you have an office. Can you have support resources deployed close to customers? Being part of a bigger group, we can leverage established offices, service, and support infrastructures and sometimes leadership teams. We have access to the PartnerNet program that supports all four business units and would be difficult for a business unit to support by itself. That program describes the benefits that partners get when they work with us. It provides them with information about our processes, our products. These are areas where we leverage the scale, the infrastructure of a large group to our advantage.

Gallant: Talk about the competitive landscape. How do you approach the market differently than the company people most often talk about in this space, Red Hat?

Brauckmann: We focus on our strengths, and we know what our strengths are. Suse Linux Enterprise Solutions are stable. They are high performing. They are interoperable, and they are backed up with high-class, high-quality service and support. That's what we take to market. Ultimately, what we all strive after is to get a piece of this Unix-to-Linux conversion market. If you want to replace Unix with Linux and make sure that critical workloads run on Linux, then you need to make sure that you have Unix-like performance or Unix-exceeding performance. You must be scalable and provide enterprise-class support. You must be interoperable and do it all at a lower total cost of ownership. In all those areas, we rate higher than some of our competitors. Actually, we get often the feedback from our customers that we provide a better value-price relationship than some of our competitors.

Gallant: From a technology perspective, how do you differ from Red Hat?

Brauckmann: Our focus is on the enterprise server market, and we will evolve with our customers as they evolve their data centers from physical to virtual to private cloud. We will evolve our Linux Enterprise Solutions with that. What we have today already, which is unique amongst the Linux operating vendors, is not just the platform -- Suse Linux Enterprise -- but also Suse Studio, which allows you to build application stacks, portable application stacks, that you then can readily deploy in the cloud and on all kinds of platforms -- Amazon EC2, for example. We have management software, Suse Manager, that allows you to manage not just our own Linux operating system, but also those of competitors, which is unique. We are helping [customers] evolve step by step into the private cloud for their data centers. For example, in the future it will not be just about the creation and deployment of the [application] image but also the storing and retrieval of images in the cloud. We want to evolve Suse Studio to cover that.

In the future, we'll have to help with cloud computing resource management. We have pieces of that. We have high-availability solutions for SLES which offer also failover. We offer high-availability storage and scalable storage. So some of that needs to be put together into a comprehensive private cloud infrastructure solution. And that's what we will offer in the future to all our customers.

Gallant: In the enterprise market, the other big competitor is Microsoft with Windows Server. How do you differentiate your strategy versus Microsoft's?

Brauckmann: Well, obviously we are an open source vendor and Microsoft is clearly not. They are a closed-source vendor, so we offer to our customers all the advantages of an open source solution -- interoperability, openness, lower cost of ownership, the power of the community that contributes. That creates a level of independence. These are advantages that the open source business brings to customers and we participate in that. But, as you know we also have a relationship going on with Microsoft. It is driven by the demand of the enterprise customer, and enterprise customers today don't believe in vendor lock-in. They use Linux as well as Microsoft solutions. There are many customers who want to have the freedom of choice, and when they choose to deploy Linux and Microsoft, they want to make sure that those solutions work well with each other. They applaud us for being able, despite the fact that we are competing with each other, to engage and create interoperable solutions. That is the advantage of this Microsoft relationship: Interoperability, technical collaboration, but also business collaboration in those areas where customers want to deploy Linux for the advantages that I just mentioned to you.

Gallant: Microsoft is focusing heavily on the cloud these days with Azure, creating a platform for applications. How important is it for either your company or the overall Linux community to have that kind of a platform-as-a-service in the future?

Brauckmann: Well, obviously Linux is the de facto standard operating system in the cloud, and we want to make sure that workloads running in the cloud run on Linux. Suse Linux Enterprise already runs on cloud substrates like Amazon EC2. I will give an example of that: If you run SAP on the Amazon EC2 cloud, you run it on SLES. There are other cloud service providers where we can take the same approach, and we will also run in the Microsoft cloud. There are active discussions going on with Microsoft to make sure that SLES is running in the Microsoft cloud.

Gallant: So SLES that could be a platform choice in Azure?

Brauckmann: Yes, absolutely. We have actively talked with them about that.

Gallant: That is not available today, but that is something that will be down the road?

Brauckmann: Correct. Yes.

Gallant: Red Hat seems to have a higher profile among enterprise customers. How do you drive greater awareness of Suse? What is your overall marketing and visibility plan?

Brauckmann: We came out of analyst meetings just four weeks ago where we introduced them to this new Suse business unit. They looked through all our business and work -- we have a lot to tell -- and they advised us to be much more aggressive about all those leadership positions that we have today. They want us to show the Suse face, the Suse brand, reach out to the community, to the open source business community. We talk with the press quite a bit. We talk with analysts to make sure they are briefed. We are staffing up our sales organization. We have more dedicated sales people than we have ever had before in the Suse business unit who will spread the message. We will engage in standard marketing activities as well. We want to become more aggressive, and we will become more aggressive telling them, the market, the customer base, about the leadership positions that we have. Who knows that if the customer runs SAP in a commercial environment, 70 percent of those customers run it on Suse Linux Enterprise? Who knows that we are the only Linux vendor who is actively endorsed by Microsoft, by SAP, by VMWare? We need to let people know about that more. That is what we will do. Leverage the leadership positions that we have.

Gallant: Let's talk a little more about that Microsoft relationship. How much of your revenue does that drive?

Brauckmann: We are private companies, so we do not disclose detailed revenue numbers down to the business units, so I cannot answer that question. What I can tell you and confirm is there is a $100 million contract for a period of three to five years. What Microsoft effectively does is they acquire the right to license Suse Linux Enterprises, so like a reseller they can sell Suse Linux Enterprise to those of their enterprise customers who want to have Linux besides Microsoft as well.

Gallant: What are the next steps for the Microsoft relationship?

Brauckmann: Pretty much continue what we do. Make sure that there is interoperability. For example, we want a tighter integration between Suse Manager and [Microsoft's] Systems Center Operation Manager. One of the next steps in the area of technical collaboration is to make sure SCOM and Suse Manager work seamlessly together. That is something that is agreed we will take to market. [There's also] business collaboration to make sure customers understand that Linux and Windows can live together in the same data center. Both have their places and their reasons to be there. So we will educate enterprise customers about that quite a bit.

Gallant: Talk about the Mono Project. Why did you decide that Suse wasn't the right home for the Mono Project?

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