February 3, 2004

Red Hat or SUSE for the enterprise? Hint: Bet the chameleon

Author: Lee Schlesinger

Can someone explain to me how Red Hat got to be the most popular Linux distribution in the U.S.? Technology isn't the answer; other distros have tangible advantages there. If good marketing is the answer, Red Hat's days at the top are numbered; with Novell behind it, SUSE is going to kick Red Hat's crown.

I expected Red Hat to be something special. How else, I figured, could it have managed to capture its large share of the market?

Well, it wasn't Red Hat's near-universal application support. The range of available applications is adequate, but not nearly as complete as, say, Mepis, which draws on the huge Debian application repository.

It wasn't Red Hat's unique administration tools. There are none. Mandrake's group of management utilities and SUSE's YaST application are powerful pluses for those distros. Red Hat lacks anything comparable.

Maybe it was Red Hat Package Manager (now RPM Package Manager), the company's tool for installing binary applications. RPM is an excellent tool, but it's no match for Debian's apt-get application and .DEB files.

Also perhaps a contributing factor was Red Hat's large roster of resellers, which have acted as an extended sales and support force. Most distros don't even dream of having organizations of that scope.

But today's Linux market is very different from the software bazaar of just two years ago. IBM has upped the visibility of Linux for everyone, and SUSE's acquisition by Novell has paired a top distro with a top networking company. Many organizations are very comfortable today with Linux on their servers, and may be ready to start considering it for desktops as well.

Microsoft taught us that it's easier to sell server operating systems when your customers already use your desktop OS. I suspect Novell is going to show us that the converse works too.

With its background as a network operating system vendor, Novell has always been more server-oriented than desktop-focused. But its purchase of Ximian gave it a vested interest in the desktop, and SUSE plays well in both arenas. I expect to see Novell move aggressively into what is today a wide-open market for Intel-based client alternatives to Windows. While many Linux distros would make fine business desktop clients, in reality only a handful of companies are well-capitalized enough to devote the resources to building the kind of marketing, sales, and support organizations businesses expect.

Red Hat already has the organization, but dropping the Red Hat Linux desktop is a questionable tactic. Maybe the company foresaw an expensive battle for the desktop, and maybe that was a big factor in cutting loose Red Hat Linux in favor of Fedora. (Though why they picked the name of an existing open source project is another mystery.) A company without both a compelling server and a compelling desktop product is bound to be at a disadvantage when trying to sell to the enterprise. No, Red Hat Linux is nothing special, but if one man can code a top-notch distro like Mepis, surely Red Hat's development staff could do as well or better.

Of course, each enterprise Linux customer selects what it feels is the best distribution based on its unique problems and needs. But given today's market, I can't see any situation where Red Hat and Fedora are likely to be better than the competition.

That doesn't mean Red Hat can't continue to win market share. We've seen plenty of examples of inferior products that sold like Pet Rocks because of good marketing. But when I think of good marketing in the computer industry, Red Hat is not a name that immediately stands out.

Luckily for Red Hat, neither is Novell. That company could have had the network operating system market locked up 10 years ago if it had been able to sell the benefits of its Novell Directory Services. Instead, Microsoft introduced the inferior Windows NT Server, and through a combination of superb marketing and questionable business tactics pushed Novell to the brink.

Novell's technology is still first-rate, and its acquisition of SUSE and rapid adoption of open source development methodologies is giving the company new life and energy. Today, SUSE is number two in U.S. Linux market share, and its prospects are excellent, thanks both to the added value of Novell's network services, which are being ported to Linux, and its new parent's commitment to regaining enterprise mindshare. By contrast, Fedora is a cast-off project from a company without significant technology differentiators.

The technology marketplace is always volatile. Today Red Hat is the default choice for U.S. businesses. Two years from now, will it even be in the top three?


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