GP - Fotolia

IBM Red Hat acquisition roils open source container management

IBM agreed to buy Red Hat with Kubernetes in mind for its multi-cloud management strategy, and it'll have far-reaching implications for the open source container management community, especially Cloud Foundry.

IBM's Red Hat acquisition has implications for a broad swath of IT management tools, but open source container management is poised for the most tumult in the wake of the merger.

IBM has cited Red Hat's Kubernetes support in its OpenShift platform as one of the chief motivators for its $34 billion purchase. And IBM officials said this week that Kubernetes will form the connective tissue for a new multi-cloud and hybrid cloud strategy.

"Kubernetes is at the center of our hybrid cloud strategy, as a common fabric based on Linux containers," said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of hybrid cloud at IBM, on a webcast.

IBM's sales force and distribution channels will help scale Red Hat OpenShift and accelerate features development, added Paul Cormier, Red Hat's president of products and technologies, on the same webcast.

However, the blockbuster Red Hat acquisition alarmed many among Red Hat's customer base and the open source container management community. Some IT pros see IBM as the ultimate, proprietary, buttoned-down corporate foil for Red Hat's open culture and worry the two will not mix well.

"It will be a challenge to maintain workforce [stability] in Red Hat, where I am expecting some frustration," said Dietmar Fauser, vice president of architecture, quality and governance for Amadeus, a global travel technology company based in Madrid and one of Red Hat OpenShift's earliest customers. "I hope that IBM manages to maintain the open and forward-looking spirit that I valued a lot at Red Hat."

Open source culture clash

IBM and Red Hat executives emphasized that Red Hat will remain a separate entity within IBM, and its product roadmaps and culture will not change. But many in the open source community need time to trust that the companies will keep these promises.

IT industry observers pointed to IBM's history of wielding its extensive patent portfolio to generate revenue.

"In Red Hat, I know many people who fight the notion of ownership in the space of [intellectual property]," Fauser said.

Moreover, the Red Hat acquisition's high 63% premium price tag has generated concerns about IBM's debt load and credit rating. And some IT pros worry IBM may bow to pressure to squeeze Red Hat to pay for the deal.

"There will be pressure on IBM to overextend themselves post-acquisition and overplay their market position by changing Red Hat license terms, which would increase their revenue without providing new value to customers," said Jeremy Pullen, CEO and principal consultant at Polodis Inc., a DevSecOps and Lean management advisory firm in Tucker, Ga., that works with large enterprise clients.

IBM claimed it won't break up Red Hat and fold it into IBM's business, a fate that would doom Red Hat in some customers' minds.

"To break it up would be to destroy Red Hat," said James Anderson, solutions architect for a manufacturing company on the East Coast. "The open source communities would shift to a different benefactor, like Google, and Red Hat's culture could not survive a breakup."

Even without a breakup, there is resistance to IBM within companies such as Anderson's, a longtime Red Hat and OpenShift customer.

"I'm excited at the opportunity for Red Hat to be accelerated by IBM investment and access to IBM customers worldwide, but worried IBM will ruin the partnerships and community that Red Hat depends on to survive," Anderson said. "We've been trying to get away from IBM mainframe for so long that there is an aversion to embracing them."

Anderson said the Red Hat acquisition is unlikely to prompt his company to take a second look at IBM as a public cloud provider. IBM is far behind other public cloud providers, such as Google, AWS and Microsoft Azure, in Anderson's view, with comparatively limited regions -- particularly multi-availability-zone regions.

Cloud Foundry implications up for debate

IBM had already moved away from its Bluemix PaaS, based on Cloud Foundry, with the launch of the IBM Cloud Kubernetes Service -- then called the Bluemix Container Service with Kubernetes -- in March 2017. IBM Cloud Kubernetes Service is now the go-to platform for new applications launched on the IBM public cloud, IBM's Krishna said this week. But he added that IBM will maintain support for Cloud Foundry and Bluemix for current customers.

What was once a quest for dominance is now a quest for relevance.
Jeremy PullenCEO and principal consultant, Polodis Inc.

IBM is also not the only player in the Cloud Foundry PaaS community, which has developed its own Kubernetes integrations through contributions from VMware and Pivotal, among others. Blue-chip enterprises such as Bloomberg are also Cloud Foundry customers, and other Cloud Foundry proponents said they believe the community can thrive without strong focus from IBM post-Red Hat acquisition.

"IBM employs some core Cloud Foundry developers, and I don't see that changing in the short term," said Andy Rosequist, director of IT operations at Boston-based car-sharing service Zipcar. "They need to have a Cloud Foundry offering in order to sell to some enterprises, but they already aren't really centering it, in my opinion."

But, in the long term, IBM's Red Hat acquisition and Kubernetes focus will undoubtedly affect Cloud Foundry as an open source container management platform, other industry watchers predicted.

"The deal will put more pressure on Cloud Foundry," said Stephen Elliot, analyst at IDC. "They now face a much larger competitor."

Polodis' Pullen compared the open source container management market to the market for web browsers on the client side.

"What was once a quest for dominance is now a quest for relevance," Pullen said. "I anticipate the same patterns will emerge on the server side, where other players have to either bow to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation or provide an equivalent ecosystem."

Dig Deeper on Containers and virtualization

Software Quality
App Architecture
Cloud Computing
Data Center