Lack of IT knowledge begets 'lock-in'

newsmaker Businesses are careful to avoid being tied to other proprietary products but don't do likewise for IT due to lack of understanding, says Red Hat CEO.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

newsmaker Technology is one of the few aspects of business in which decision makers allow themselves to get locked in, due in large to their lack of IT understanding, says Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst.

Business heads "obsess" over preventing product lock-in across other industries, yet fail to do the same for IT decisions, Whitehurst said. He added that large software houses are "spewing cash" to perpetuate this pattern.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia in an interview, the Red Hat chief discussed the effects of IT lock-in, support costs and what open source means to governments in Asia.

Q: Open source's biggest challenge has always been getting a foot in the door with organizations. Is this still an issue?

Whitehurst: We're doing our best to educate users. Across the board, value sells. It's a very positive message. If you can get a small percentage of desktops on Linux, the next time it comes to a refresh cycle, we have some leverage to negotiate as an open source company.

Some companies are so locked in to a product or technology that the vendors can come in anytime and threaten to turn off the switch.

If you look outside the IT industry, companies are always building duplicates. You want to have two rail lines, two sources of power, and so on, so that you can never get fully locked in. Executives obsess about this.

Yet, because many senior executives don't understand IT, lock-in happens in all the time with IT deployment. And other software companies--Microsoft, Oracle--they're just spewing out cash to lock you in. And most executives don't realize it because they don't understand IT.

"Software companies--Microsoft, Oracle--they're just spewing out cash to lock you in. And most executives don't realize it because they don't understand IT."

This is linked to how bloated Windows Vista is getting. Hardware manufacturers actually like the platform because new OSes (operating systems) need more horsepower, and you have to constantly refresh your hardware. Others in the value chain are excited about Microsoft updates because it generates revenue for everyone. I have seven- to eight-year old computers that run faster than a new Vista computer. If you run a browser or productivity software, and not high-end games, you don't need that sort of power. Yet you're forced to buy it because of the way the proprietary model drives you to have to upgrade.

A computer you bought five years ago probably ran Windows XP on 250Mb of RAM. But now you have to have a gigabyte of RAM at the least, and this is required by the OS--not the software on top of it.

Critics have said Red Hat's support costs are higher than Oracle's. Will this be an issue in the current financial crisis?

We don't just support Linux; support is a small component of our offering. We're taking functionality that is out there and making it bullet-proof. We also like to think we provide better support when you run into real tough issues. As the largest open source contributor, we probably have the guy who wrote that software on Red Hat payroll.

We also feed conflicts we find, during our software tests, back to the community. Otherwise, open source development gets fundamentally forked if we don't share what we learn.

What is Red Hat's growth momentum in Asia? Last year, your predecessor estimated 60 percent of Red Hat revenues will come from outside the United States by 2009. Is this on track?

We're more around the low-40 percentage mark right now. It's a goal--I think we'll get there. Asia contributes 17 percent of our revenues. We feel good about that, and it continues to grow nicely.

In Asia, there is a real public policy benefit to using open source. A lot of software intellectual property (IP) resides in the United States, so paying for IP from outside the U.S. means dollars flowing out of other countries. Because open source is fundamentally cheaper, there is less dollar flow.

And there is also knowledge transfer when countries embrace open source. That's why governments in the region are getting excited about open source.

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