Red Hat, JBoss kick open source up a notch

Red Hat's plan to acquire leading Java application server vendor JBoss probably will result in more corporate interest in open source software, because the two companies could provide customers with the first one-stop shop for a community-developed application platform.

The challenge will be in how well Red Hat integrates JBoss' Java-based middleware suite into its products and how well it maintains existing relationships with third-party vendors such as IBM, which are focused on competing Java application servers, analysts say.

For the most part, however, industry observers agree that the move is a smart one and should be good news for customers looking for a reliable provider of open source software.

"This is excellent news for me as a Red Hat customer," says Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at the Saugus Union School district in California. "Having a certified, Red Hat-supported JBoss will not only further legitimize JBoss - and perhaps Red Hat - as a viable enterprise-class alternative, but likely will continue to improve perceptions of open source as a whole in the minds of corporate IT."

It's that kind of thinking that JBoss executives hoped for as they made the decision to sell the company to Red Hat. The two companies announced last week that they have entered into an agreement in which Red Hat will acquire JBoss for US$350 million, plus US$70 million should JBoss meet certain performance metrics. The acquisition should be completed by the end of May.

Analysts say the acquisition is Red Hat's most aggressive step yet in its effort to move up the stack beyond its Linux operating system roots, but they point out that several hurdles remain.

One of those is to integrate the JBoss software successfully into the Red Hat Linux distribution, while maintaining the vibrant JBoss development community that has pushed the open source application server to the top of the middleware market.

"JBoss has to maintain the community. If Red Hat doesn't allow it to maintain the community, then the deal is a failure," says George Weiss, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

Red Hat says JBoss will operate as a semi-independent entity. That should be good news for those running its middleware on non-Red Hat operating systems, especially Windows. JBoss, which inked a deal with Microsoft last year to improve interoperability, says about half its users run its products on Windows.

"There is the potential problem of Windows users who will now see the Red Hat acquisition as a Linux play that may jeopardize the future momentum of JBoss on Windows or JBoss' relationship with Windows," Weiss says.

Questions also could arise regarding Red Hat's relationship with IBM, which is focused on the competing Apache Geronimo application server and recently announced a partnership with Novell to bundle SuSE Linux with its WebSphere Application Server Community Edition - a free version of its Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition application server built on Geronimo.

"The issue of what IBM will do with Red Hat vs. what they might do with Novell might start skewing a little more toward Novell, so that's something you have to look at," Weiss says.

Nevertheless, industry observers say the Red Hat-JBoss pairing makes sense, and call it a reflection of the rapidly maturing open source market. A key point is that while commercial vendors have been snapping up open source firms, this represents the largest pure open source deal to date.

"Of the firms that JBoss could have sold to, we definitely consider Red Hat to be a very reasonable alternative," says Barry Strasnick, CIO at CitiStreet, a benefits management company in Quincy, Mass. "We already run all of our JBoss instances on Red Hat, thus we consider this to be a win-win."

Saugus Union's Klein expects the acquisition to give both Red Hat and JBoss a boost in the enterprise software market.

"Red Hat has been a little weak in the application server and middleware space, as their existing offering - Red Hat Application Server - lacks much of the refinement of more mature solutions, such as JBoss," he says.

Saugus Union uses the Apache Tomcat Web server, but is looking for an application server to anchor its move into serviceoriented architecture. "We have looked at BEA's AquaLogic and a few other tools, but, now that we can get support, and perhaps training, from Red Hat, JBoss is looking like a winner," he says.

Sequence of events

April 10, 2006: Announces plan to acquire JBoss for US$350 million.

December 2005: Says it will roll out precertified open source software stacks, including Web and application server middleware components.

June 2005:Introduces Red Hat Directory Server; built on technology acquired from Netscape.

September 2004: Announces agreement with AOL to acquire some assets of Netscape Security Solutions, including the Netscape Directory Server and the Netscape Cerfificate Management System.

August 2004: Introduces the Red Hat Application Server, based on the Java Open Application Server, developed by ObjectWeb.

December 2003: Outlines its Open Source Architecture, which includes open source middleware developed by Red Hat partners.

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