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rPath on Red Hat's appliance strategy: "Some assembly required"

Why does certification stink so much? Is virtualization a better answer?

It's not surprising that Billy Marshall, former Red Hatter and current CEO of rPath, would be dismissive of Red Hat's new appliance operating system, given that he will be competing with it. But what I did find surprising is how dead-on his assessment is of enterprise software.

We talk about certification a lot (i.e., "Yes, we are certified to run on SQL Server"). The customer takes this to mean, "It will work well with SQL Server." But this isn't always the case. In fact, as Billy points out, it is often not the case:

According to Red Hat, the product will be a valuable alternative to rPath because it preserves application "certification." Apparently this means that customers will still need to assemble, configure, and maintain the components inside the virtual appliance. After all, "certification" is only valuable when the components are not provided as an integrated, optimized, and tested unit.

Given that most customers only buy "certified software solutions," is it surprising to anyone other than me that they spend 6X the cost of software licenses on assembly, test, administration, and maintenance? If certification guarantees that things work together, why do software vendors currently spend as much as 50% of their customer service time troubleshooting the relationship between their application and whatever "certified" OS the customer has decided to use to support the application? If each release of the components is "certified," why do customers drag their feet when it comes to updates and upgrades? Maybe because "certification" does not really guarantee anything other than "some assembly required."

Ouch! As I intimated above, while Billy is swinging at Red Hat he ends up hitting much of the industry along the way. Enterprise software requires far too much configuration to make it work well.

One solution to the problem is to go with a meta-vendor like Oracle or Microsoft that has effectively acquired or built every known kind of enterprise software and (more or less) integrated them all together. Let's call this the "Sauron" path. :-)

The other is to simply certify a bunch of applications to work with your own solution, whether you're an operating system vendor or if you're selling content management systems, business intelligence, etc. But, as Billy notes, this is nowhere near a perfect solution.

Yet another solution is Billy's: roll applications as virtual appliances. There is a definite trend in this direction - at least for evaluation - and it's likely we'll see more and more virtual appliances in production. What is holding it back?

Don't ask me. Ask the ministry.

OK, OK. That was Thom Yorke, not Radiohead. I couldn't help myself.