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IBM-Red Hat open source culture clash worries some insiders

IBM's acquisition of Red Hat could threaten the Linux leader's open source culture of allowing developers to work on any open source projects.

The IBM-Red Hat megamerger will create the largest open source, developer-driven IT company ever -- and one that must reconcile two very different approaches and motivations for open source development.

Both IBM and Red Hat claim strong commitments to the open source model. Red Hat is highly supportive of open source culture and encourages its software engineers to work on any open source project they please. By contrast, IBM tends to steer its engineers toward commercial projects that are likely to benefit IBM, said Tyler Jewell, CEO of WSO2, based in Mountain View, Calif., who sold his company Codenvy to Red Hat last year.

There is a difference between a vendor that has committed lots of engineers to open source versus a vendor with a strong reputation in open source, Jewell said. IBM has committed thousands of engineers to work in open source, but its open source reputation derives from the volume of work done, rather than the motivations for those contributions, he said.

Tyler Jewell, CEO of WSO2Tyler Jewell

Red Hat bases its founding principles on a commitment to nurture and develop open source culture in any form. The company encourages engineers to work on upstream open source projects, even if the goals of the project might be counter to Red Hat's interests.

Unless Red Hat can enforce its open source principles on IBM, Jewell said, the IBM-Red Hat acquisition could drag down the latter's open source culture and the company's momentum along with it.

IBM maintains open source commitment

But IBM begs to differ, and the company has more than earned its chops in the open source community, said Steve Robinson, general manager of IBM's hybrid cloud. The company long ago embraced Linux. Its work with software development tools 20 years ago became the open source Eclipse integrated development environment and the precursor to the Eclipse Foundation.

Today, IBM commits thousands of engineers to open source projects, he said. And IBM actively encourages and rewards employees for their contributions to open source projects, added Rodric Rabbah, co-founder of a New York-based stealth startup focused on serverless computing and a former IBM employee who created what became the Apache OpenWhisk serverless platform.

"I hope some of the Red Hat culture carries over to IBM and helps to further the transition IBM is undergoing with a stronger commitment to [open source software], as well as public, private and multi-cloud solutions," he said.

One litmus test for the companies' future with open source development will be whether IBM continues Red Hat's policy that employees should put the interests of upstream open source projects ahead of the company's interests, said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, based in Ottawa. "The value of Red Hat is in its people and culture. Retaining both of those will be absolutely key," he said.

In a call with investors, IBM and Red Hat execs said this argument is moot, because it plans to leave Red Hat to operate as a distinct unit, which will preserve its open source culture. Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst will continue to lead Red Hat and join IBM's senior management team.

Customers aren't concerned, but engineers are

Customers appear to disregard the distinction between selfish and selfless open source providers.

This isn't new or like Oracle acquiring [Red Hat]. Changes will happen, but I sincerely doubt that it will derail either company or change their DNA.
Theo Schlossnaglefounder and CEO, Circonus

"IBM has long been a participant and contributed to open source,” said Theo Schlossnagle, founder and CEO of Circonus, a provider of big data analytics and monitoring for web-scale IT in Fulton, Md. "This isn't new or like Oracle acquiring them [Red Hat]. Changes will happen, but I sincerely doubt that it will derail either company or change their DNA."

However, if some customers expect little impact, some employees believe differently. Red Hat developers have started looking to leave the company, said a software development team manager at a large New York-based financial institution. He said he has received several resumes from and spoken with a few Red Hatters concerned about IBM, its size, its open source strategy and the potential infusion of "blue" into the Red Hat culture.

"This is going to be the end for me," said a Red Hat engineer who requested anonymity. He said he had been considering leaving for some time anyway, because he prefers the fresh, hungry, open source culture of startups, and he now feels threatened by the affiliation with IBM.

Nevertheless, the IBM-Red Hat acquisition could benefit customers of both companies through new skilled developer hires and newfound efficiencies.

"I can imagine some benefits IBM could bring in terms of being more organized and focused -- currently, dealing with Red Hat can be a little bit chaotic," the development team manager said. "The open source culture encourages individuals to engage individually with us, which can cause confusion. This is an easier fix than product strategy."

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