Red Hat CEO At LinuxCon: I Have No Idea What’s Next

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Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, just delivered a terrific opening keynote presentation for LinuxCon. Whitehurst isn’t just a businessman, he’s also a geek. He used Linux and open source before joining Red Hat, and the opportunity to be CEO of the world’s most successful open source company was a dream come true for him. After a quick summary of some of the major milestones Linux has seen over the last twenty years, he jumped into the heart of his keynote: what’s next? Whitehurst wasted no time in answering this question: “I have no idea.”

This is a somewhat uncommon response from a CEO, but it makes perfect sense for anyone even moderately familiar with Linux. Linux has seen so much growth in so many markets that it is almost a foolish exercise to try to make predictions about what’s next for Linux. (Indeed, the Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin has been saying “This is the year of the Linux desktop” for the last four years!)

Nevertheless, he had some thoughts about what the OS and ecosystem might soon be enabling. Here’s a quick summary of some of the more salient points from Whitehurst’s presentation:

Linux is a transformational technology. “The technology of Linux empowers advancements and innovations that have nothing to do with the technology of Linux.” That is to say, Linux supports the development of new business models, as well as new technologies.

The freedom to use Linux for any purpose, for free, has spawned many of the things we now take for granted: Amazon, Facebook, Google. Could any of these have succeeded to the extent that they have if they were required to purchase expensive proprietary software before they rolled out their products?

Moreover, Linux allows rapid and low-cost prototyping, making it easier to innovate and evaluate what works and what doesn’t. According to Whitehurst, “when you’re looking for innovation, you’re looking for what’s happening in open source.”

Linux has gone from catching up to commoditizing existing innovation in flexible, open ways, and now is moving on to leading innovation. The leading innovations today are happening in open source first and then big companies are working to productize that innovation for themselves. Hadoop, Cassandra, etc. are all examples of open source innovations that are now being warmly embraced by big companies.

Another leading example of this sort of innovation is everyone’s favorite term, ‘The Cloud’. Why is it that there is no single, solid definition of the cloud? It’s because no single company or vendor pitched it, so they didn’t get to contextualize it. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and other big, complex technologies didn’t have a small group of drivers. Rather, they emerged from a larger collection of technical experts working together.

The open source development model used by Linux has seen some remarkable, and in some cases ironic, collaboration. The US Navy, for example, was in need of a real-time kernel with deterministic performance characteristics in order to develop anti-missile technologies for their fleet. Linux didn’t have such a kernel, so the Navy contributed it. This directly benefited Wall Street, where now 80% of all stock exchanges rely on Linux and the real-time kernel for trading.

The National Security Agency wrote the Security Enhanced Linux extensions which are now a fundamental part of Red Hat and a few other distributions. The work the NSA did made it so secure that Linux is now the most secure operating system certified by the Russian government.

The open source ethos runs deep. Whitehurst shared a recent conversation he had with Facebook’s CTO, in which he asked “Why do you guys release so much of your infrastructure work for free, when you know your competitors are going to use it, too?” The answer: it’s a moral issue. They feel that that have a responsibility to make the world a better place for everyone — contributors and competitors alike. If they can make someone else’s data center more efficient, or more reliable, then it’s incumbent upon them to do so.

Whitehurst wrapped up with the observation that the principles of mass collaboration are changing the world.