To mark what many in the industry are treating as the 25th anniversary of Linux, I swapped emails with Martin Percival, senior solutions architect at Red Hat. The following is a lightly edited version of our exchange.
How did you first get involved in Linux and Red Hat?
I probably need to caveat my answers by saying that I used to work for the “traditional” Unix vendors; with systems from Tandem, SGI and Honeywell, so my early encounters with Linux were from the outside of Red Hat.
One of my earliest encounters with Linux was right back when some of the well-known distributions of the time were still being sold in boxes, in shops like Barnes & Noble in the US. At that point, even Red Hat hadn’t yet added the “Enterprise” to their Linux. I was running a home computer made by Acorn using their new RISC ARM chip and got involved in a really small way with the efforts to port Linux across to that machine – of course ARM are everywhere now, and Linux runs on many of those devices!
In the early days what did you think was the real size of opportunity?
As a competitor, I was skeptical. I think very few of us had any feel for just how ubiquitous the x86 architecture was going to become. We were seeing the speed of things like the MIPS and PowerPC chips and it felt like the world of Unix would forge forwards on those architectures. Of course, with the huge adoption curve of the Intel range and the support that Linux had for that chipset, it was bound to grow at a similar speed and the commoditization of hardware that followed quickly woke up the proprietary Unix vendors to the market possibilities.
One of the things that caused that early skepticism was that no-one (to that point) had really tried to make an open source business model like Red Hat’s work.
At one point companies like Microsoft became very heated about Linux and FLOSS, calling it a ‘cancer’ and so on. Did you and your friends and peers ever take any of that stuff seriously?
I think it’s always difficult to comment on just how other companies work internally. Of course there was the famous outburst that you mention and I’m sure it was heartfelt at the time, but we work in an industry which is forever throwing up examples of the innovator’s dilemma. Companies which are resilient enough to respond flexibly to change are the ones which survive and we’ve seen a huge change in the attitude of companies like Microsoft to open source software, to the point where they even signed a partnership agreement with Red Hat at the end of last year.
What are you most proud of when you look back at how Linux has developed?
Funnily, it’s the way Linux has developed that should probably be the greatest source of pride. The global, collaborative development of an open source project as large as an operating system is an amazing thing and the coordination of work and resolution of disagreements is a great example of how powerful community projects can be.
At the end of all the analysis, Linux now forms the backbone of much of current world, running on systems from supercomputers to phones, and driving so many of the global cloud-based services (like Facebook and Google) that we think of as being vital to our lives. We have to be proud of that!
Any ‘roads not taken’ that you regret or things that you wish had been done differently?
I think that there is such power in the word “Free” that many users of Linux think only of it meaning the dollar cost and not the freedom of speech and usage it brings to their world. While the FSF were always at pains to point out the difference, the human mind latches on to the “bargain”. There is always room for more education, as a result, about what this “freedom” really means.
Why do you think Red Hat has become the most successful company emerging from the movement?
Red Hat realised very early on that the business world needed the same kind of support and guarantees around Linux that it demanded from any other kind of server software vendor. Enterprise software is generally “big and ugly” enough that it needs a sizeable group to maintain and evolve it and this is perhaps different to using and supporting a single smaller piece of open source software in-house (which feels more manageable). Companies need an organization like Red Hat to handle that complexity, so they can build their own customer value on a solid base.
At the same time as building that business model, Red Hat adopted its principle of working with communities to create the software that we ultimately harden and release as our own enterprise version. This idea of being a catalyst, rather than a dictator, sits well with the open source community and enabled us to attract much of the best talent in the open source world.
How has the company changed over the years?
Every company changes with time and size and Red Hat is no exception. At a purely technical level, the product set itself has grown from the solid platform provided by RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) out into the worlds of virtualization and private clouds. Container support now sits at the heart of RHEL and new ways of using our middleware and mobile offerings are being supplemented by the advent of software defined storage.
There’s a temptation to think that a company growing like Red Hat must inevitably fall foul of a shift in culture, and yet that initial zeal for being open in all that we do has not only survived but is reiterated for every new joiner of the company. It’s got to the point now that Jim Whitehurst (our CEO) wrote his own study of this culture in his book The Open Organization and is called upon to speak about it frequently.
Where do you see Linux being in 2041, after another 25 years?
I am convinced Linux will continue to lead IT innovation during the next 25 years. It will help to accomplish further and greater changes in the world of IT as it has already done since 1991.
25 years ago Linux was created. And since then it has allowed us to accomplish innovations no one would have thought even possible. Linux is now embedded in our lives in a way that most people do not even know about. Smart fridges, TVs, smartphones, smartwatches… These are just a few examples of items we use daily that could not run without Linux.
Linux has enabled us to be connected. Whether through the internet, social media or smart devices and I think that in the next 25 years it will allow us to be even more connected in many different ways to today. I suspect that Linux will probably be more embedded in our lives, and maybe parts of Linux will be running in our own bodies. It’s exciting to imagine the artificial intelligence that will be in play around us!
Security, hardware advances and containers are also areas that will become more and more important for Linux to focus on. Linux will serve as the frontline of security and will allow us to detect potential flaws and vulnerabilities at the earliest lines of codes. The community will have to adapt to these constant IT evolutions, to keep Linux as the standardiser for the eco-system of chipsets and hardware approaches. As it constantly adapts components in the kernel, Linux will also help us detect “what’s next” as to stay ahead of innovation. Finally, we are seeing a rise in container adoption. Linux containers will continue to evolve to enable scalability at an almost infinitesimal level.
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