Red Hat CEO on patents, open-source virtualization

Jim Whitehurst talks about his first six months and the future of Red Hat.

A half-year after becoming president and CEO of Linux vendor Red Hat, Jim Whitehurst was in Boston last week for the annual Red Hat Summit. The former COO of Delta Air Lines sat down with Network World's Jon Brodkin to discuss open source, a new patent settlement, and Red Hat's moves in virtualization.

Six months on the job, how's it going so far?

It's been phenomenal. Coming from an industry where it was hard to figure out a business model that works, to a place like Red Hat that has a phenomenal business model, it's incredible. That said, there's a lot to do.

What are your top challenges over the next year or so?

We've got to keep the company focused, a lot of work to do to execute. This was a company that was tiny a few years ago and it's growing rapidly. Just being a lot more structured with who makes what decisions, how decisions are made and processes and systems. I like to say around the organization that people at Red Hat do amazing things in spite of our systems. It's certainly not because of them.

You have to push down and disperse decision-making and put in place processes and governance. That's not sexy stuff but this is the time when a lot of companies trip. They get to a certain size and they fall under their own weight because they're between being small and big. One of the reasons I'm here is to make sure we go through this transition well.

Unfortunately, I had to miss your keynote Wednesday morning. Can you tell me what you talked about?

The first part was talking about how we're the leaders of open source, we do hard things in open source, it's not just marketing to us. I talked about the patent settlement, the first time there has been a patent settlement consistent with the GPL [open source license].

Editor's note: Red Hat on June 11 settled patent-infringement claims brought against it by Firestar Software and DataTern. According to Red Hat, the settlement protects Red Hat itself and the customers and developers using Red Hat's open source software.

Tell me more about the settlement.

What was impactful and important about it was we not only protected ourselves and our customers, we protected all upstream and downstream use of the technology. A lot of times, not to pick on anyone in particular, but Novell in the Microsoft settlement didn't protect all their upstream and downstream users. We're not just protecting ourselves, we're protecting everyone who uses that technology.

Are patent disputes a common problem for you?

It's always one of the issues, how do you handle patents with open source, because of the necessity in open source to protect up and downstream. It's a complex set of legal issues. We generally don't run into it that much because open source is really good at working around patent issues. It doesn't take up a lot of my time.

The virtualization market is dominated by VMware, but you guys expanded your virtualization portfolio with a Linux-based hypervisor this week. What are your goals in virtualization?

Virtualization is half the operating system. Paul [Cormier, Red Hat president of products and technologies] would actually say virtualization is the operating system in a lot of ways. We feel pretty strongly virtualization needs to be pretty tightly integrated with the operating system.

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