Q&A—Red Hat's Brian Gracely on open source and doubling down on Kubernetes

Red Hat's Brian Gracely says that open source gives telcos and enterprises a multitude of options that usually need further development. (Red Hat)

When it comes to open source, Red Hat plays on both sides of the fence as a developer of open source communities and commercial products.

Red Hat also has a relatively long history with Kubernetes and containers that dates back to 2015, according Brian Gracely, the director of product strategy for Red Hat. In January, Red Hat forked out $250 million to buy container management pioneer CoreOS in order to add more weight to its Kubernetes capabilities.

In this Q&A, which was edited for length, Gracely talks about the state of open source communities, how Red Hat monetizes open source and the growing popularity of Kubernetes.

FierceTelecom: Do you think that open source is doing enough in terms of virtualization, containers and microservices? Are there too many open source communities out there right now?

Brian Gracely: I think a couple of things. I think in general, in terms of filling technology holes and driving new innovation, open source has no problems and no lack of projects right now. In fact, probably the biggest thing we hear from a lot of companies is it's great that there's so much out there, how do we keep up with all of them?

Right now, I think there's a general sentiment from a lot of enterprise companies, telco companies and so-forth that most of innovation that's happening these days are in open source, moreso than it is coming from many vendors. So on one hand, that's a really good thing, a really positive thing.

The flip side of that is, because there's so much going on and there's so many things happening so fast. Open source has never been known for being the people that sit and finish up projects. They've always sort of gotten it to a good solid point that does 80% of what you want it to do, or it works well enough but there's not great interfaces and things on it.

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What tends to happen is, either commercial companies like Red Hat or Canonical, or anybody else, ends up making it usable for them afterwards. We obviously also see the public cloud beginning take those open source projects and turn them into managed services as well.

I think we're pretty comfortable with the trend that's happened where it's like the communities are really dedicating things to a point and then somebody, whether it's a software vendor like ourselves or a public cloud provider, or in some cases like a systems integrator, end up doing the last mile work of getting it usable for the mainstream.

FierceTelecom: Where is Red Hat as far as being able to monetize open source products and services?

Gracely: I think for Red Hat, we've always built our business around the premise that because there's a lot of interesting innovation and there's also lower cost technology in open source, there will be people who are willing to pay some price point for that, especially if you're going to support it and you're going to help maintain it in a way that they can deal with it.

So, for example, in the case of Red Hat, we don't just take the upstream projects and just put them on an FTP server or something like that. We've always provided very rich support, very rich training and documentation but we also do full lifecycle management of the project.

For example, take that telco customer or take a bank or something like that, there's always going to be times when the open-source project moves at a fairly rapid pace and they'll come back to us and say, "Look, I'm not doing an upgrade in November, because that's Black Friday, that's when we do our inventory for the season, it's our busiest period." And then at some point that turns into January, February, March, whatever, and they go, "Oh, we're not in sync with the project anymore but we found a bug, can you go put that bug back in old version software, such as backward stuff, or can you help me deal with that?"

That's always been probably the biggest thing that we've done: Help customers deal with the lifecycle of open source projects and how it relates to their business.

For a lot of companies, there are always startups who want to use open source as the core of their technology, and some of them are very successful at just dealing with open source. Some of them take the approach of Open Core, which is they're going to add some proprietary stuff on top of that. Some of them are successful, some of them fail, and then obviously we see cloud providers who are now taking open source and turning them it into managed services.

So, we think there's a lot of room for monetization across a bunch of different approaches or business models.

FierceTelecom: We've heard a lot about Kubernetes this year. Can you give us an overview of what Red Hat is doing in regard to this platform?

Gracely: We got involved with Kubernetes really early. Google had come to us in late 2014 and said, "We're going to open source this project, we'd love to work with you, because you work with communities and we haven't worked with them as much."

So we started shipping products that had Kubernetes back in 2015. Our OpenShift product has been using Kubernetes since 2015. For those first couple years, you went through a grilling phase. You had to educate a lot of customers: What does it mean? Is Google really going to stay on this project or are they going to dump it like some other consumer products they've dumped?

For a couple years it was only a few of us that were doing it; it was us and Google and a company called CoreOS and a few others. But it gained a lot of customers and it gained traction with customers across a lot of different industries.

Over the last probably 6 to 9 months, the industry has kind of consolidated around Kubernetes being the best container technology. That's why you've seen so many announcements of this vendor and that vendor now supporting Kubernetes, because the industry sort of realized, "That's what customers are buying the most, that's the most stable community."

Even though telco's not as far along, we feel it's a really good community. It's a really good technology and we've been doubling down our investment. We've acquired a company called CoreOS back in January of this year. That brought us a whole bunch of really good engineering talent and technology.

So for Red Hat, we're really doubling down on not just what we do developing in the community, but then turning that into the products that are used by a lot of different industries across a lot use cases.