New Red Hat boss defines company's future

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst brings expertise in running a large company to software vendor poised for its next grow spurt

Competitors should keep a weary eye on newly minted Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, whose fresh face masks a certified executioner who has a plan to grow the open source leader into a billion-dollar juggernaut supplying data center infrastructure software.

The 40-year-old Whitehurst left his position as COO of Delta Airlines to replace Matt Szulik on January 1, and brings with him a business savvy he intends to soak into the corporate culture of Red Hat.

He's already tagged Microsoft as bloated software that locks in CIOs while actively spinning Red Hat's story around middleware, virtualization and software-as-a-service.

Next week, he will take the stage at Red Hat's JBoss World for his first conference keynote address as CEO and first appearance in front of a large audience of customers and partners eager to hear where the company and its software are headed.

He doesn't plan to disappoint and the Harvard MBA's goals are lofty. He expects the open source vendor that had just less than US$500 million in revenue last year to eventually strut into the billion-dollar range in the next three years.

Other goals that he thinks are achievable in a perfect world and in that timeframe include continued growth in server market share, establishing the company as the leader in supplying service-oriented architecture (SOA) and the clear application server front-runner, re-accelerating the company's growth rate and re-establishing its position as a large growth company.

"He's an operator," says Raven Zachary, an analyst with the 451 Group. "It's tough to run an airline. Even though there have been lots of critiques of the airlines, the reality is that he understands complex issues related to operations."

That knowledge is what Red Hat appears to need as it looks to evolve past its Linux operating system roots. The company is attempting to mix the Linux operating system, virtualization, middleware, independent software vendor (ISV) applications and software delivered as services into an enterprise data centre platform.

Page Break

"I think I bring a whole series of skills around execution to ensure that we really take Red Hat to the next level," Whitehurst says. "And I think that that is something that the board was looking for."

Zachary says it is wait-and-see time, but that Whitehurst certainly "has the background to take Red Hat to the next level."

Nearly a year ago, the company released Version 5 of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), but it was efforts to rationalize its 2006 acquisition of JBoss, join the virtualization craze, stave off attacks on its services and support crown jewel, and court Java developers where the company faced down new competitors such as IBM, Oracle/BEA and Sun. All of which lined up to take shots at the upstart.

But Whitehurst is building the gallows to execute Red Hat's revenge. "Certainly we will move beyond just the [operating system], and I think we are already doing that to some extent," he says. "If you look at our Linux automation kind of broader technology vision and what we are looking at in delivering around SOA and middleware, we have a pretty compelling value proposition that we think works quite nicely together. I think we need to do a better job of articulating that in the marketplace. I think that is an area where our execution can improve."

The goal is to get JBoss to grow at twice the rate of RHEL.

The message is that Red Hat middleware will support intranets, SOAs and online services. Virtualization will fuel application portability allowing ISVs to tie together operating system and application into one certified-to-run package that can be installed on servers or in the cloud.

Telling the virtualization story, Whitehurst says, is another area where Red Hat needs better execution.

Whitehurst also has sized up the competition. He respects Microsoft's success but isn't intimidated. He says he's not a religious zealot who won't develop relationships with proprietary software vendors, but the issue with Microsoft is lock-in and software bloat. "We think our much more nimble, open source, higher-value offerings are very competitive with them," he says.

Page Break

As far as Novell, he says Red Hat does not see the company very often in competitive deals.

"In terms of being a competitor, it is not a bad competitor to have if you are not running into them a lot," he says. On Oracle, Whitehurst doesn't slow down. "They create a lot of noise but not a lot of progress," he says. "It always pays to be paranoid, so we do follow their activities closely. But our model is quite durable so we feel very, very good about that."

The Red Hat model is open source projects such as Fedora and JBoss complemented by enterprise versions of the same software tied into a service package.

Whitehurst says he's not about to abandon the desktop but is pragmatic about the evolution of desktop Linux, a business he says does not appear to have potential to generate a lot of "big dollars."

"I think desktop is a place that is important to support certain areas of the world or certain customers in certain circumstances," he says.

Overall, Whitehurst sees his role as executing on progress. "This is a company that still has a lot to do in developing the processes and the systems and the governance structures to continue to scale and be effective," he says. "So I will be spending a fair amount of time making sure that we are developing the models of decision making and all of this basic infrastructure kind of stuff to ensure we are enabling the business and not hindering it."