Novell reveals its tactics for taking on Red Hat

A blog post made by Novell late last month - accusing one of its largest competitors in the commercial Linux space, Red Hat, of deliberately obfuscating its code to hamper third-party support efforts - raised some eyebrows in the community, so we sat down with the post's author, Michael Applebaum, to find out what's what.

Applebaum's post accused Red Hat of getting "a little defensive" over Novell's poaching of its enterprise Linux customers, following the company's addition of commercial Red Hat support to its portfolio back in 2009. It's a move that Novell knew would raise Red Hat's hackles, but one which the company claims came about purely through customer demand.

"We had a number of customer who were in the process of migrating their systems over from Red Hat to SUSE Linux Enterprise," Applebaum explained, "and they don't do that overnight. They have a migration plan, and that may ask for a period of two or three years, and they wanted the ability to move fully to Novell as their supplier of software code as well as for the core system - to have a period of time over which they could make that migration."

That demand led to Novell offering full Red Hat Linux support, giving customers who had chosen to make the move to Novell the option to sever their contracts with Red Hat immediately - and yet still receive technical support and product updates until their migration to Novell's SUSE Linux was complete.

While that might seem to be underhanded tactics to some, Applebaum claims that Red Hat gets up to far worse itself. "If you look at some of their rather strong-arm sales tactics that they're encouraging their channel partners to conduct - I have a link in my blog to the Red Hat Partner Newsletter where they are directing their channel partners to force customers to either renew their Red Hat subscriptions or to de-install the Red Hat software from their systems, which, as far as I'm aware, is not exactly condoned by the GPL," he told thinq_ during the interview. "So, I see them really responding in some not very customer friendly ways to the competitive pressures in the environment today."

Those 'competitive pressures' - from both Novell and other commercial Linux vendors - led Red Hat to the move which triggered Applebaum's blog posting: the deliberate obfuscation of the source code in order to make it harder for third parties like Novell to provide the same level of support for Red Hat Enterprise Linux as Red Hat itself, forcing companies to keep paying for support even as they move to alternative providers.

It's a tactical move which, Applebaum explains, has failed. "From a maintenance perspective, Novell doesn't face any problem in providing regular kernel updates for RHEL," he explained in his blog post. "As part of our standard process, we take the publicly available source RPMs, remove any trademarks, and rebuild the packages. We deliver completely binary-compatible RPMs," despite Red Hat's efforts to prevent such behaviour.

Red Hat's official reasoning for the changes to its source packaging procedures is to 'compete' with rival vendors like Novell. "Why did we make this change? To speak bluntly, the competitive landscape has changed. Our competitors [are] directly approach[ing] our customers, offering to support RHEL," the company's announcement regarding the change admits - but Applebaum sees the move as self-destructive, indicating that Red Hat puts its commercial desires above the good of the open source community that provides the very product it sells.

"I think that as more of Red Hat's commercial tactics come to light, they do run the risk of upsetting the open source community," Applebaum warned, "and I think that many of us - many commercial open source providers - need to be focused on both supporting and growing the open source communities around the projects we support as well as providing a very reasonable and attractive value to our commercial customers."

That's another area in which Applebaum sees Novell piling the pressure onto Red Hat. "It comes down to value," he claimed, "which manifests itself in a few different ways. It has to do with how you structure your pricing schedule across your different offerings - whether you nickle and dime customers for every little add-on to the operating system platform.

"As a case in point, Novell does not charge any additional money to use the XFS file system in conjunction with SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, whereas that's a conditional line item on an invoice from Red Hat. Similarly, we offer unlimited virtualisation support, meaning unlimited virtual guests, with a single subscription, whereas Red Hat has a much more complicated and higher-priced schedule to support virtual guests."

Despite his disparaging comments regarding Red Hat's offerings, Applebaum and Novell claim to still remain true to the central ethos of the commercial open source community: competitive cooperation. "The world of Linux is one of 'coopetition'," Applebaum claimed, "and I think that's a fairly well understood dynamic in the industry - the customers understand that and I think that the open source community understands that.

"We have employees who work very closely with employees from Red Hat, with employees from other Linux providers, with employees from key Linux ecosystem partners like IBM and Intel, and HP and AMD, and VMWare and many others - we partner and collaborate with them in dozens of different areas but, when it comes to providing commercial products and services, we are also competitors."

Applebaum denied that Novell has any immediate plans to turn its gaze onto other commercial Linux distributions. "We're going to continue to be responsive to what customers are asking for - by the time we got to 2009 we had heard a groundswell of requests for Red Hat support side-by-side with SUSE Linux Enterprise, so we responded to that," he explained. "We don't have plans to support any other commercial Linux distributions, but the philosophy is that we're going to listen to our customers and they're going to guide us on where we need to go."

It's clear that Novell's tactics have Red Hat worried, but Applebaum shrugged off suggestions that his company could fall foul of the same tactics. "The question is 'what is the value that a company like Novell or Red Hat is delivering to its customers?' We're constantly looking to see what we can do to deliver more value to the service, and that's really the question there - we have to be providing a good value proposition, which is a function of the software code we're delivering, through various technical support services we're promoting, and the overall value that we're delivering in both commercial terms as well as the some of the complementary offerings that are being delivered around the operating system itself - Red Hat has some chinks in the armour here."

Novell's next big market, Applebaum revealed, is cloud computing - specifically, offering system administrators the ability to centrally manage systems whether they're physical, virtual, or cloud-based, something Novell is, he claims, uniquely positioned to offer. "We see capabilities like workload and image building as being essential elements enabling the option of cloud computing for our customers who want to be able to manage cloud computing environments as an extension of their existing environments," he explained.

"They don't want to have to build an entire seperate management infrastructure. I think that with capabilities like SUSE Studio from Novell, customers now have the ability to build and manage workloads across their existing physical, virtual, and cloud environment, and to do so with essentially a 'build once, run anywhere' type of approach - which is very compelling. With the support that we recently added for Amazon EC2 as an image format, specifically their AMI format, within SUSE Studio, now customers really can build for any of those physical, virtual, or cloud environments - which is a capability we don't see elsewhere in the market."

The burgeoning cloud computing market isn't just an opportunity for Novell, however - but for Linux as a whole. "Linux has a very special opportunity in cloud computing," Applebaum claimed. "It's certainly uniquely modular, and uniquely flexible, which is valued when you're talking about environments where you're looking for high performance and flexibility for different types of workloads. Linux providers like Novell are uniquely able to offer commercially flexible terms for different deployments of Linux, whether you're talking about an on-premise virtualised environment where you add in self provisioning, metering, and elasticity, or whether you're talking about a public cloud environment."

With Novell having partnered heavily with hypervisor vendors such as VMWare, Citrix, and Microsoft, as well as some of the biggest names in cloud computing such as Amazon, it's an area in which Novell is certainly spending some money - but with the cloud bandwagon feeling somewhat overhyped, one in which newcomers will have to tread carefully.