Red Hat looks under Linux's hood

Trying to take a more active role in open-source programming, Red Hat is expanding its R&D efforts on the operating system.

Trying to take a more active role in open-source programming, Red Hat has created a team of 34 programmers to work on nothing but next-generation software, the company plans to announce Tuesday.

The move is enabled by the Linux seller's surging profit and ensures the programmers will have time for the development instead of worrying about customer support requirements, said Brian Stevens, Red Hat's new chief technology officer. The company plans to double the team's size in the next nine months.

The team has several priorities, Stevens said: incorporating the Xen software to let a computer run several independent operating systems at the same time; improving the "stateless Linux" software to try to make desktop Linux a cost-effective option; and maturing programming tools such as the probing software.

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What's new:
Linux reseller Red Hat has created a team of 34 programmers to work on nothing but next-generation open-source software.

Bottom line:
The company is trying to rapidly respond to specific customer requests for its software, even if it has to work more on its own.

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"We're building an emerging-technologies team," Stevens said. "There have been a lot of great ideas that we haven't been able to give an incubator environment to before."

The move signals a more active phase in Red Hat's engineering efforts, which generally have incorporated software changes once they've attained broad support among open-source programmers. Now the company is trying to rapidly respond to specific customer requests for its software, even if it has to work more on its own.

"In the past, Red Hat worked like most open-source companies: They wait for the developer community to arrive at a solution, get it working, and build momentum among users. Then Red Hat comes in and turns it into a supported package and distributes it," Ideas International analyst Tony Iams said. "What they're saying now is they're not necessarily going to wait until this shakes out."

Red Hat's profits and user base gives it the clout to pull off some of its development ambitions, even if the broader open-source community doesn't accept its approach or implementations, he added. Despite its savvy about open-source developer relationships, the company is unlikely to wait for consensus to build around its choice of Xen as a focus of work, for example. "It's hard to see how they're not going to be the heavy," Iams said.

Red Hat reported net income of $16.7 million in its most recent quarter and raised its estimates for future results. The company's gains in the Linux market, which stem chiefly from its flagship Red Hat Enterprise Linux product, contrast with the plight of its chief rival, Novell. That Waltham, Mass.-based company is expected to initiate layoffs and restructuring to try to trim expenses and improve its business prospects.

Unlike some companies, such as IBM and Novell, that sell both proprietary and open-source software, Red Hat works only on open-source projects. Thus it isn't likely that Xen management tools or other in-house development projects will become proprietary products from the Raleigh, N.C.-based company. Indeed, CEO Matthew Szulik argued last week that technology suppliers use proprietary software to keep a "knee on (the) throat" of their customers, against those clients' wishes.

Xen rising
Xen is designed to create several independent instances of an operating system, each called a virtual machine, on a server. Once virtual machines are built, they can be stored on a hard drive, duplicated or transferred to a different computer over a network.

The open-source software is one of several virtualization projects under way, the other main contenders being EMC's VMware and Microsoft's Virtual Server. All share the goal of making a server--and ultimately, a group of servers--run multiple jobs more efficiently.

Red Hat committed earlier to using Xen, but it now has formally pledged to incorporate the software into its next version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The company has said that version is due to arrive in late 2006.

Stevens described how Red Hat plans to charge for the software in the virtualized realm: It will permit customers to buy one subscription per server that permits them to run as many instances of RHEL as desired. Right now the company essentially sells multiple subscriptions for a server, but charges less.

"We don't think the way to monetize that value is charging per virtual machine," Stevens said. "If somebody is deploying software in a virtual environment, they'll start treating the use of a virtual machine as a precious commodity, if they have to start counting VMs."

Microsoft will let a customer run as many as four instances of its upcoming Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition on a server at no extra charge. In addition, the top-end DataCenter edition of the successor to that product, code-named Longhorn Server, will permit unlimited versions to operate.

Xen is available in Fedora, a free version of Linux that Red Hat uses to try to quickly bring new technology to maturity. The company is considering making Xen run by default with the forthcoming Fedora Core 5, Stevens said. "It's a good way to get a lot of testing," he said.

Red Hat also is looking at higher-level management tools for Xen. The management tools would help customers to automatically install software to newly created virtual machines as well as schedule jobs and balance work running across a group of servers, Stevens said.

Xen remains a relatively immature product today, however, and not one to be used by those faint of heart. By August, developers had hoped to release Xen 3.0, which is expected to include important support for multiprocessor servers. However, that version now is scheduled for release in December, according to the project Web site.

Stateless Linux
Another major push will be the stateless Linux effort to make the operating system useful for customers with large numbers of desktop computers, Stevens said. This software effort "got stalled out" for a time, but "with the new team, we're picking it back up," he said.

Stateless Linux stores the particulars of a computer user's desktop operating system on a central server and lets the person tap into it through a variety of methods, Stevens said. For example, users could have Linux installed on a PC that synchronizes personal files kept there with the same files kept on a server, so they can work offline or get faster access. Or a generic PC could temporarily be turned into a user's personalized machine by booting it using a Linux CD or a version of the operating system sent over a network.

The key to stateless Linux is creating a version of the operating system that can automatically adapt to a PC's particular hardware configuration, Stevens said.

Stateless Linux is the top priority customers are seeking from Red Hat after virtualization, Stevens said. The reason is to reduce management costs for companies with hundreds or thousands of machines, he said.

"What we're trying to do is (develop) a compelling way to drive down the cost to manage client environments," Stevens said.

SystemTap
New developer tools are on the way for Linux, too. Sun Microsystems has attracted a lot of customer attention with its DTrace tool, which finds bottlenecks by letting administrators analyze software as it runs, Stevens said. SystemTap is a newer alternative to DTrace designed to work with Linux; DTrace with Sun's own OS, Solaris.

"There was a lot of 'We like DTrace, and we want you to do that,'" Stevens said. "Now I don't hear that anymore."

There's still work to do, but Red Hat is headed in the right direction, analyst Iams said. "If you do a head-to-head comparison with DTrace, you'll see SystemTap is not anywhere near as powerful," he said. But the work so far is "an indication that Red Hat has not lost touch with the requirement of enterprise and data center users, where Linux is making a lot if its headway. A lot of the success is at the expense of Unix systems."

Red Hat also is backing development of Frysk, an advanced debugging program, the company said.

Stevens is the right person to oversee the Linux and open-source improvements, Iams said. He worked on the highly regarded clustering abilities of Tru64 Unix, developed initially at Digital Equipment Corp., before moving to a start-up called Mission-Critical Linux and then to Red Hat.

"He was one of the chief architects of TruClusters. He's got a very strong track record," Iams said. "He's one of the smartest guys I've met in my career. He understands the issues cold."

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