Red Hat - commoditizing or democratizing?



One phrase that I heard often from Red Hat was how they commoditized some layer of the infrastructure, such as commoditizing GNU/Linux. 

I understand what they are trying to say, and this is in reference to operating systems that are not based on open source, such as Windows or various flavors of UNIX, which were the only game in town. But with the rise of open source, Red Hat made these systems supported and available for enterprises.

However, the phrase “commoditizing” bothers me. In a strict sense, it means that it’s fungible, or capable of being substituted for one another.  For example, pure gold is fungible. I mostly don’t care if it’s an ounce of gold mined from one mine or another. There are common parts to GNU/Linux distributions, namely the Linux kernel, but that does not make the entire distribution a commodity. There are many items layered on top.

I think Red Hat has done something more. They use upstream open source code in their products such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) but they offer support, hardware certification, etc. to add something beyond the upstream code. That’s why enterprise customers are willing to pay for Red Hat support. In some cases, enterprise IT policies require the use of supported software, even if an open source edition is packaged for easy deployment and considered stable.


They do offer “raw” editions such as Fedora or sponsor the CentOS project, which is a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (CentOS is enterprise class software but relies on community, rather than paid support).  So the requirement of official support will prevent enterprises from using these systems in production.


So I was thinking about what term is best suited for what Red Hat does. I think the phrase is democratizing the GNU/Linux software base. To be specific, it’s taking the lineage of UNIX and making it more accessible to the enterprise user base.


There are of course, other vibrant Linux OS communities, with Debian being the most famous distribution that creates a rock solid system that is the basis of Ubuntu.


But in the realm of enterprise Linux software, Red Hat has been able to provide a platform that is accepted by enterprises, which in years past relied on UNIX systems. The company tracked the lower cost structure of x86 servers by providing a lower cost system, made it palatable to IT buyers, and in return supported a community that contributed upstream code.


What’s interesting is that your typical Red Hat Enterprise Linux user is not interested in participating actively in the open source community. Perhaps they gain comfort in knowing that there is a large community of contributors, or that open source inspection and transparency provides for better security.


That is in contrast to web scale companies that not only utilize open source software, but also contribute to it.  An example would be a firm like Comcast that uses OpenStack and also contributes code. These companies are more likely to rely on community support, probably because they have the staff to manage the deployment on their own. But most mainstream customers don’t have that luxury, so they rely on a commercial distribution. 


Does this make firms like Comcast a more democratized participant? Perhaps, in the same sense as being a participant in a direct democracy, since they contribute directly to the code base. But I don’t think this diminishes what firms like Red Hat have done. After all, whereas its customers cannot contribute code, it acts on their behalf to support the various projects (whether it is OpenStack projects or anything else).  So I think they are acting as a proxy, or participants in a representative democracy.


I may be splitting hairs here with definitions, but it’s interesting to see how open source continues to change the landscape of IT, not only in software, but also in hardware (such as through the Open Compute Project),


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