Q&A: New Red Hat CEO on JBoss, open source and the future

At the fifth annual JBoss user conference, James Whitehurst shares some of his vision and explains what it's like to switch from an airline to the open-source industry

ORLANDO -- Since being acquired by Linux vendor Red Hat Inc. in mid-2006, open-source middleware vendor JBoss Inc. has been a company in transition. It was well-known for its open-source middleware line that could be used by large businesses to better tie together their divergent applications.

Today, JBoss has come further by adopting some of its parent company's strategies, particularly by creating and marketing fee-based enterprise versions of its popular middleware in addition to still offering its free, community-based open-source software.

Red Hat CEO James Whitehurst

In an interview at the JBoss World Orlando 2008 conference, James Whitehurst, Red Hat's newly appointed CEO and president, talked with Computerworld about where the JBoss division has been and where it is going as part of Red Hat's overall strategy for customers. Whitehurst, 40, joined Red Hat last December after serving as chief operating officer and in other positions at Delta Air Lines Inc. since 2002. He also was a vice president and director of The Boston Consulting Group Inc.

How are things different for JBoss customers since the 2006 Red Hat acquisition? It's hard for me to know what external people expected from JBoss back then because I wasn't here at the time of the acquisition.

But as a company, we went back and fundamentally retooled the business model. JBoss up to the acquisition was the .org bits that they then sold to customers with support contracts. Now, as with our separate community-based Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux editions of Linux, having JBoss offer both community-based open-source JBoss versions as well as JBoss Enterprise versions is a better model for our customers. If you're going to run something in production, you want to be sure it's going to run reliably.

Open source is innovative, but the bad news is that the code keeps changing quickly. Customers want to make sure it is going to work for a few years without major changes. It's a very different model than JBoss had before, but it's very robust.

My first thought was that having two versions was an artificial way to make money in open source. But it's not artificial at all. It's a controlled way of integrating open source for enterprises. JBoss went from selling technical services and support to selling a hardened business product.

And how has that worked so far for the parent company, Red Hat? The JBoss business is growing rapidly, and we believe it will continue to grow at twice the pace of our Red Hat Enterprise Linux business.

We have a huge opportunity to convert JBoss business users from the free community-based version to the paid version. I bet you'd be hard-pressed to find a Fortune 500 company that's not using JBoss today. The question is, are they paying for it? The enterprise version is much easier for them to use because it uses stable code that doesn't constantly change compared to the community-based version. It's about a flip of the switch today to change to the enterprise version. If you go with the enterprise version, it means what you add will still work effortlessly five years from now. Unless it's battle-hardened, it won't get used, and the communities won't get as big.

Has the acquisition by Red Hat meant that more customers are now adopting JBoss because they are already Red Hat users? Interestingly, in a lot of the channels especially ... more systems integrators are much more interested in JBoss now because they can sell services and support for it. Linux is cheap, so not a lot of consulting services get dredged up for it. Systems integrators care about middleware. They want to sell middleware, and at the same time, it expands the use of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

At Delta, you were the COO, not a technology fellow. How does it feel now to be the CEO at a major open-source company? Are you completely at ease in your new role and its technologies? I was not that particularly involved in IT at Delta. We had open-source software in some Delta kiosks and in other places.

I have a degree in computer science, and in my nonworking life, I've played around with Slackware and other open-source applications. I've been an avid watcher of this for years. Clearly, I'm getting more up to speed about open source. This is an extremely healthy company. This isn't a place where we needed a turnaround strategy. Flawless execution is much more important than flawless strategy. I do think that I bring some skills that will move us forward. We have passionate people.

What is your relationship with former JBoss founder and CEO Marc Fleury, who has since left his former post? He was very passionate about his company. Is he still in touch about it? Actually, we live about one mile apart. We talk regularly. There's a Starbucks that we meet at. He doesn't have an official role with the company.

In the end, what has it been like coming from Delta, where the airline industry has been having tough financial times, to Red Hat and the world of enterprise open-source software? I was in a place of cutting, shrinking, protecting and defending in the airline business. It's nice to be the attacker.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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