Red Hat mulls Exchange competitor

Red Hat will not say whether it is planning to develop a competitor to Microsoft Exchange.

Red Hat shed a little more light this week on how it intends to develop the directory and certificate management software it bought from America Online's Netscape division. But the company remains undecided as to whether it will commercialize some other assets it acquired in the deal, including messaging and collaboration software analysts say could form the basis of an open-source alternative to Microsoft Exchange Server.

Red Hat purchased the Netscape assets, including the Netscape Directory Server and Netscape Certificate Management System, at the end of 2004. Since then, it has rebranded these products the Red Hat Directory Server and the Red Hat Certificate System. It is also in the process of releasing the source code to its directory server to the open source community.

In an interview conducted during the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco this week, Red Hat Director of Identity and Security Solutions Mike Ferris said that his company now plans to release the Certificate System under an open-source license, although no timetable has yet been set for this. "We're in the process of working with the community to make sure we can open source it," he said.

Although the directory and certificate products were the focus of the Netscape acquisition, Red Hat also picked up a number of other server products that could conceivably form the basis of a competitor to Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange messaging server, analysts say. This software includes the Netscape Messaging Server, as well as Web, calendar and collaboration servers.

Though these products may have languished since they were acquired by AOL in 1998, they could form the basis of an Exchange alternative, something that really does not exist in the open source community, according to Anne Thomas Manes, research director with Burton Group.

"I think that the open source community would probably jump at the opportunity to get a good foundation for a strong message server," she said.

Ferris was tight-lipped on whether Red Hat planned to begin selling the Messaging Server, which is probably the most widely used of the remaining Netscape products. "It's something we see as a viable technology," he said. "The question is, 'Is the market ready for it?'" he said.

Another more important question is whether or not it would be easier for Red Hat to simply expand its partnership with IBM, whose Lotus Workplace is being heavily promoted as an alternative to Exchange.

Though Novell has targeted Microsoft Exchange with an open source product of its own, called Hula, one analyst said it was unlikely that Red Hat would willingly enter into a direct fight with Microsoft's messaging and collaboration products.

"I'm not sure that Red Hat is going to fight that war," said Stacey Quandt of Quandt Analytics. "I think their strategy would be to partner with IBM and to have IBM fight that battle."

Earlier this week, IBM and Red Hat agreed to distribute Workplace Services Express via the Red Hat Network, an arrangement designed to make it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to evaluate IBM's software.

If IBM should demonstrate widespread success displacing Exchange customers, Red Hat could take that as an opportunity to develop a product of its own, Quandt said. "They may decide sometime in the future that having an open source solution for messaging could be a viable strategy," she said.

Red Hat's Ferris declined to predict the likelihood of that outcome. "I'm not going to give any odds or speculation on something like that," he said. "We'll make the responsible community decision going forward."