The devil is in the detail

22nd February 2019 By malcra 0

An appropriate title for this website, but also relevant to the critique of a short article doing the rounds this week.

Best read the article on Red Hat’s Hidden Treasure before reading the rest of the critique below.

The article on the face of it seems spot on, as it highlights what people in Red Hat (and I assume IBM) know, that given it’s an open source company its not product or intellectual property that they are buying but the people and organisation that make it.

The biggest risks to the deal’s success might come from IBM themselves. No wonder Ms. Rometty will keep Red Hat as an independent company, despite the billions she used to buy it.

This recommendation of independence is music to the ears of Red Hat staff, most of whom who remain at Red Hat on the understanding that exactly this will happen, with IBM taking a very loose grip of the affairs of the most expensive software company acquisition in history.

However, there are initially a couple of things that make you take a closer look at the findings. The article isn’t independent, as it’s written by Avalia, a company that sells software products for assisting with mergers and acquisition, so guess what, it’s going to promote M&As in a positive light. Secondly, it mentions Docker as part of Red Hat’s product portfolio; er nope.

The article itself focuses on Ansible as an automation tool in comparison with it’s open source competitors (Puppet, Chef, Salt and Terraform) and use this as this as the basis for determining the value of IBMs acquisition of Red Hat.

It makes some good points on the health of Ansible as a product and open source community and confirms Red Hat’s approach of hedging its bets when it comes to upstream projects, having backed Puppet to a large extent previously (and incorporating it into the Satellite product). As the Avalia report states, Red Hat have chosen wisely by backing what now it is market leader in automation, Ansible and that does mean a good potential return on the investment for IBM.

There is an interesting reference at the end of the article on a wider reflection of what this specific Ansible analysis might mean to the IBM acquisition of Red Hat overall.

Taking Ansible as a reflection of Red Hat’s open-source culture, community, and technologies, IBM is making an excellent acquisition. Ansible’s core leadership belongs to Red Hat, and their care has translated into a growing and diversified community of contributors, that in turn have built a great quality software. With this acquisition, comes great power and great responsibility with Red Hat’s developer community, and many questions still need to be answered.

Avalia report

This makes a lot of assumptions, in particular about the state of the wide range of open source projects and their downstream, enterprise products that Red Hat are involved with. There are a lot of large, commercially driven open source projects like Kubernetes and OpenStack in which Red Hat plays an important part, but doesn’t have the control to the extent it does in Ansible. There are also other projects, like ManageIQ, that are primarily driven by Red Hat but are not so healthy by the same open source measurement.

Red Hat as a company also isn’t also just developers working on open source project. There is also expertise around converting this into a successful financial model based around subscriptions and services. Red Hat was the first (and maybe the only) true open source company to be significantly successful on a pure open source model.

Selling, marketing and product managing an open source commodity is very different to a proprietary one and alongside all the upstream, development goodness, people at Red Hat have also built a business. Some of this business IBM will want to leave alone, some they might mimic, but the temptation to leave alone will be harder than it would be for the developers.

A sales team working on strategic accounts, using an approach based on open source philosophies (meet-ups, customer forums, transparency through to engineering etc), will be more easily consumed by the larger acquirer. It’s likely not to be a planned approach a corporate level, but just something that happens at a lower level.

Interesting times ahead and as the Avalia article suggests, IBM are best leaving alone, but not just solely based on how they see the success of Ansible.