Red Hat Overhauls the Enterprise Software Stack

By Andy Oram
June 24, 2010

Never, I think, have I seen so bold an assault on current industry standards than Red Hat's campaign over the past couple years. Their plan is no less audacious for being based a good deal on open standards and open source solutions, some of them invented outside Red Hat. The company is openly badgering large, IT-driven organizations to move away from comfortable patterns--as much as Red Hat spokespeople talk about incrementalism--and to adopt what they believe to be the best virtualization platform, the best cloud API, the best data storage mechanism, and so on.

Several years ago Red Hat, which at the time was strongly associated with Linux and in a more general way with generic server installations, announced they were moving "up the stack." The purchase of JBoss marked this move, which was fairly radical for the company.

Now, with the same determination and sense of purpose that they showed moving up the stack, Red Hat is moving down. Prime evidence at this week's Red Hat Summit and JBoss World conference, which I attended this week in Boston, was Red Hat's announcement along with Cisco that the open source KVM virtualization technology now runs on Cisco's VN-Link platform. As the routers and switches of physical networks give way to software equivalents, Red Hat wants to be an option.

DeltaCloud, for instance, comes with an application called Aggregator that performs typical high availability and load balancing tasks in a variety of cloud platforms, such as starting multiple instances and migrating instances between sites.

But the move down the stack took place much earlier when they adopted Xen and then KVM, a community innovation that broke new ground several years ago by putting virtualization right into the Linux kernel. Then Red Hat announced Infinispan, a data storage solution something like a cache and something like a NoSQL distributed data repository. And with Deltacloud, they resolutely declared that the industry standard cloud API should not be Amazon Web Services (as Mårten Mickos declared it to be when he talked to me earlier this week) but a totally new RESTful API of their own invention.

Red Hat's moves up and down the stack seem to be paying off for the company, which has grown steadily through years of competition and the recent recession. Subscription revenue was 20% higher than last year. The very existence of this week's three-part conference, hosted at Boston's World Trade Center and drawing people from around the country, demonstrates Red Hat's worldly success.

And Red Hat's obsessions are shared by its customers, who filled talks such as what's new in KVM or how to use SpringSource. Just a handful of conference sessions covered Linux, the technology for which Red Hat was known when the company started, while just a couple other sessions covered traditional system tools such as Samba and Kerberos. The rest of the conference tracks were filled by a plethora of sessions on middle, application management, and controlling cloud infrastructure.

JBoss and, to a lesser extent, Deltacloud mark Red Hat's attempts to introduce new technologies and make them standards, but the company is quick to adopt standards developed elsewhere too: AMQP for messaging, for example, SELinux, and even the Open Virtualization Format, which was championed originally and highly influenced by VMware.

Therefore, although Red Hat's offerings aren't all open source or based on open standards, both are central enough to keep it a champion of open source, and their rhetoric--as well as their routine release of new tools with open source licenses--indicates that they believe open source is the route to success.

In their Wednesday press conference, company reps were confident the would overtake VMware. They pointed out the slow growth in VMware specifications over the years (number of CPUs supported, etc.) and the speed with which Red Hat Virtualization surpassed these numbers. The reps attributed this to using newer basic technology, as well as to KVM's integration with the operating system. They also boasted that integration of virtualization with the kernel allows them to apply SELinux's state-of-the-art security to virtualization.

Bill Burns, in a talk before a packed hall, offered some details to back up the claim that integrating virtualization into the kernel improves performance. (Red Hat claims to get 85% of the bare metal performance using virtualization.) It permits optimizations that reduce the events that require context switching, and standard kernel configuration options can be used to manage resources for guest operating systems as tasks in the OS.

One particularly interesting optimization, according to Burns, speeds up the loading of Windows guests. These guests tend to zero out a lot of pages immediately on start-up. (Unix-style systems are famous for handing dirty pages to new processes, which cannot assume that variables are zero until they're initialized.) The large number of zero-filled pages are normally opaque to the hypervisor, which has to allocate a separate page for each one. But KVM, through a feature called Kernel Samepage Merging, can recognize when VMs create identical pages and store a single copy of a page until a VM changes it.

Mark Little's talk on the state of JBoss highlighted the move of business process management to SOA--because providing functions as services streamlines workflow changes, and therefore process management--and indicated that Drools is being integrated into BPM. Little also highlighted the recent Infinispan caching tool to relieve programs from database overhead--a kind of NoSQL migration--and talked about JBoss performance improvements, particularly in messaging (where AMQP is also being adopted).

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