Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has stated that the database company could soon be providing Linux support services to Red Hat customers. During an interview several months ago, Ellison announced plans to enter the Linux distribution business, potentially by acquiring Novell. Citing distribution compatibility concerns, Ellison claimed that Oracle would be better off with its own complete middleware stack rather than trying to support Oracle database and middleware software on a rapidly growing number of Linux distributions. Now it appears Ellison is leaning towards simply appropriating what Red Hat produces and building a support services business on top of it rather than buying up a distributor:
“Red Hat is too small and does not do a very good job of supporting [its customers]. … The great thing about open source, the most interesting thing to me is the intellectual property. … We can just take Red Hat?s intellectual property and make it ours, they just don?t have it.”
Ellison’s attitude isn’t all that surprising, since he made similar statements about JBoss following Red Hat’s acquisition of the Java middleware company in April:
“Why didn?t we buy JBoss? Because we don?t have to – if it ever got good enough we?d just take the intellectual property – just like Apache – embed it in our fusion middleware suite, and we?re done.”
Although Oracle’s approach may seem exploitative, it is important to keep in mind that the absence of ownership in open source software is intentional. In the open source software industry, companies contribute to a shared intellectual property commons and compete with each other on the basis of service and support quality.
Red Hat and Oracle previously enjoyed a strong, mutually beneficial relationship, but in the wake of the JBoss acquisition, Red Hat is now in the middleware market, where it competes directly with Oracle. By offering support services to Red Hat customers, Ellison hopes to limit Red Hat’s growth into Oracle’s territory and make some money at the same time.
Although existing Oracle customers will probably be interested in streamlining their support consumption and working with one vendor rather than two, it is doubtful that Oracle will be able to meet the needs of Red Hat users better than Red Hat. Red Hat certainly needs to be more responsive to certain kinds of support issues, but that doesn’t imply that a company with more resources and expertise will be more successful attempting to supply the same services externally. Ellison seems to think that by leveraging its superior resources, Oracle can beat Red Hat at its own game. I think that Ellison suffers from some misconceptions about the nature of the open source software development process, and fails to recognize that such a business model would make Oracle dependent on Red Hat in many respects. In order to support Red Hat customers, Oracle would have to work closely with Red Hat, and Oracle’s aggressive attitude really doesn’t give Red Hat any incentive to be accommodating. It seems to me that if Oracle decides to make Linux support a serious part of its business, it will have to create its own distribution or a derivative.