Saturday, July 3, 2010

Open source could be a success story, too: Red Hat CEO

MUMBAI: From airlines to open source software, Red Hat’s global CEO Jim Whitehurst has made a smooth transition. Mr Whitehurst, who was the chief operating officer(COO) of Delta Airlines in his earlier stint, and helped the bankrupt airline return to profits, is now at the helm of open source software vendor Red Hat, which competes with firms several times its size such as Microsoft and Oracle.

Mr Whitehurst’s focus has been to change Red Hat from what he calls a one-trip pony selling, supporting open source operating system Linux to an enterprise infrastructure software firm, competing on technologies like cloud. “If you look at how we are positioned now with our customers and how analysts view us, we’re an enterprise infrastructure company.

That’s been a great transition. One of our biggest contributions to open source is our growth in profitability. It demonstrates you can have a successful model around open source,” Mr Whitehurst told ET in an exclusive interview.

Coming from an airline, the 42-year-old Mr Whitehurst is an unlikely CEO for a technology company, and more so, a company that makes profits from selling free software.

When he left Delta, he was approached to do a lot of additional turnarounds, but Mr Whitehurst said rather than trying to fix something, he wanted to build something, where there was a buoyant canvas to be painted, and Red Hat fit that bill. Red Hat was also looking for someone from a non-tech background and Mr Whitehurst’s profile, with his interest in geeky stuff, matched it well.

Other than expanding Red Hat’s portfolio, Mr Whitehurst worked on diversifying its customer base to include more than just banks (NYSE Euronext is one of its customers) and telecom firms, that are typically early adopters of technology.

“When I joined, our top customer list was great — all major banks and telcos. But where’s everybody else? Where are the big mainstream users of IT? That’s one of the key things that we worked on,” said Mr Whitehurst. Red Hat today has railroads, utilities, airlines and petro chemical firms on its top 25 customer list.

“The most powerful force in technology is not Moore’s law, its inertia,” said Mr Whitehurst, who beefed up support from systems integration partners and independent software vendors to extend its presence among customers.

“People want to feel confident they can deliver what they promised. And we generally feel more confident doing something we’ve done before. So if you are a systems integrator and you want to deliver for your customer, you feel more confident using things you’ve delivered before. So there is an inertia out there that we’ve to just overcome,” he added.

Even as Microsoft and Google get more aggressive in the consumer space, Mr Whitehurst is clear that Red Hat will not dabble in the consumer business.

“We’re an enterprise software company and we will stay focused there at least for the medium term... Look at Apple, they’re a consumer company. Look at Oracle, they’re an enterprise company. Very few companies have been able to do both well, and not just in technology but in business in general.” Red Hat is participating in India’s ambitious Unique ID project through its partners.


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