Today marks the tenth anniversary of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), and many people who have followed the rise of the RHEL platform may be surprised that it is so young. Released while the burning embers of the dot-com boom were still smoldering, it--along with Red Hat's comprehensive support for an open source platform--appealed to many businesses who wanted a low-cost way to facilitate useful workplace applications without massive IT headaches. And, as Red Hat itself notes, RHEL has also found a home in government installations.
According to a tenth anniversary statement from Red Hat:
"In 2003, the U.S. Army commissioned a study on ‘The Business Case for Open Source Software’ and the then DOD CIO John Stenbit released the first DOD-wide guidance on open source software, which implicitly permitted its acquisition, development, and use. Nine months later, in July of 2004, the Office of Management and Budget issued a similar memo that covered the government as a whole."
"At the same time, Red Hat released the first version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1. The Army deployed Red Hat’s operating system in its Blue Force Tracker system, which lived in jeeps and tanks on the battlefield. Major General Nicholas Justice, the man responsible for Blue Force Tracker, said later: “When we rolled into Baghdad, we did it using open source.”
The Register also has an interesting summary of RHEL's earliest days attempting to gain traction with businesses:
"RHEL emerged from the craze for Linux company IPOs that went hand-in-hand with the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Red Hat went public in August 1999 and Linux was on fire with Red Hat, as the first big Linux distro offering commercial support, the hottest. Red Hat had lined up partnerships with Compaq, IBM, Oracle, Computer Associates, and others in the systems racket after Linux was enthusiastically embraced years earlier by academics and the supercomputing labs."
To this day, a big part of Red Hat's strategy remains renewing support subscriptions from its most loyal users, and banking on positive word of mouth generated by these loyal users. The company's model of providing top-notch support for open source software is being copied by many commercial open source companies.
At this point, Red Hat is the only public, U.S company focused exclusively on open source, now that Sun Microsystems and Novell are no longer independent entities. Both Novell and Sun had lots of capital expenditures and operating expenses over time, and lots of fat of other kinds built into their business models. Red Hat's lesson is that a company can run lean simply supporting open source software and still fare well over the long run.