Red Hat pushes for Linux in federal market

'What's been fascinating, as I talk to CIOs, is that unlike conversations I've had in the past where they ask me 'Where are you guys in other government agencies?' they're very interested in where Red Hat is in the commercial marketplace.'

' Red Hat's Paul Smith

Company plans new division, software release aimed at luring government users

Next week, Mr. Smith goes to Washington'again. Paul Smith, head of Red Hat Inc.'s new government division, that is.

On Feb. 2, the leading commercial purveyor of open-source Linux will officially launch a federal division in Vienna, Va., with an eye toward promoting greater adoption of open-source software in government agencies.

Shortly after, at LinuxWorld in Boston, the Raleigh, N.C., company will roll out Version 4 of its Red Hat Enterprise License software (RHEL 4), its first release based on the Linux 2.6 kernel.

In separate interviews with GCN, Smith and Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik said Linux adoption in the government and commercial sectors is strong, and the new federal office reflects a commitment by Red Hat to help agencies reap the purported benefits'lower costs, higher security'of open-source software.

Smith, who spent the past five years building the government division of storage software vendor Veritas Software Corp. (which recently agreed to merge with Symantec Corp.), said talking to agencies about Red Hat's products is unlike other conversations he's had.

'What's been fascinating, as I talk to CIOs, is that unlike conversations I've had in the past where they ask me 'Where are you guys in other government agencies?' they're very interested in where Red Hat is in the commercial marketplace,' Smith said.

That's because Linux, as the flagship product of the open-source industry, has been successfully adopted in a variety of commercial industries, he said.

Interesting times

Red Hat's formal push into the government market comes at an interesting time.

The company is the leading provider of Linux server software at a time when Linux server sales are growing significantly faster than overall server sales'22.8 percent to 3.8 percent, according to research firm IDC Corp. of Framingham, Mass.

But competition is also swirling. Novell Inc.'s SuSE Linux Enterprise Server is rapidly growing its subscription base and Sun Microsystems Inc. plans to offer an open-source version of its Solaris 10 operating system to compete directly with Red Hat Linux.

The good news for agencies: Analysts expect increased competition to translate into even lower prices for enterprise-class Linux systems.

Shawn P. McCarthy, a senior analyst for IDC and GCN columnist, said Red Hat's prospects are strongest in Defense Department agencies.

'I see very strong interest within DOD,' he said.

Several years ago, the Army chose Red Hat Linux to run its Personnel Electronic Record Management System, which was implemented by Northrop Grumman Corp.

In 2003, Red Hat Linux Enterprise License became the first Linux distribution to be certified compliant with DOD's Information Infrastructure Common Operating Environment.

What isn't clear, however, is how well Linux and other operating systems will fare in displacing Microsoft Windows as a desktop OS. The upcoming Red Hat 4 release also includes new software for client systems, and company execs insist they're committed to promoting Linux on the desktop.

'At the server level, there is strong interest,' McCarthy said. 'It's a way to get a machine up and running very cheaply. There is also very strong interest from IT service providers who help develop government systems and networks.

But at the desktop level, Linux seems limited to IT managers, scientists and those who don't mind tweaking and managing their own systems. Beyond that there is very little market for general office machines.'

Szulik admitted that getting agencies to consider Linux as a desktop OS was a challenge, mainly because of widespread investment in back-end applications such as Microsoft Exchange, which don't work seamlessly with Linux.

Special Linux-Exchange connectors, such as Novell's Ximian Connector, provide patchwork connectivity for Linux-based Exchange clients.

But Szulik also said tighter OS security is a significant reason for switching to Red Hat Linux clients and that agencies working on enterprise architecture initiatives may be in a better position to consider Linux clients in their planning.

Beyond the pond

'Most of the success we're having [with client deployments] is outside the United States, mainly because many European and Asian customers don't have a legacy of key infrastructure that Microsoft has sold them over the years,' Szulik said.

(The GCN Lab is currently reviewing desktop OSes, including Red Hat 4; look for the report in a future issue.)

The company developed RHEL 4 to support the National Security Agency's Security-Enhanced Linux project, which augments Kernel 2.6 with add-ons such as a policy compiler, a library for security-aware applications and policy-related utilities. (For more information, visit www.nsa.gov/
selinux.)

According to Smith, it will come out with Common Criteria Evaluation Assurance Level 4 certification.

Developers have improved input/output performance and memory management, Szulik said, as well as overall system administration. A future RHEL release will also include Xen, an open-source virtualization technology, he said.

Red Hat operates on release cycles of eight to 15 months, Smith said. 'Even though the state of open-source code is changing daily, we'll only pull those things into the version as it makes sense like a normal, mature software company would do.'

Red Hat's products can be found on several high-profile contract vehicles, including the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Commodities Store III and NASA's Scientific & Engineering Workstation Procurement III, but the company makes most of its in-roads through hardware partners.

'We're heavily dependent, being an open-source provider, on original equipment manufacturers like IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.,' Smith said.

GTSI Corp. of Chantilly, Va., formed a consortium with Red Hat, Hewlett-Packard, Intel Corp. and Oracle Corp. to help agencies evaluate Linux-based computing environments.

'Linux is being adopted in scientific areas at a tremendous rate,' said Jim Sweeney, manager of GTSI's Linux technology practice. 'It is also being tested and tried in almost every area of government at some level.'

Despite the new federal division, and roughly 50 Red Hat employees and contractors focused on government, agencies must still proceed cautiously when considering a Linux migration.

McCarthy recommended that any government IT group entertaining a move to Red Hat Linux make sure it explores issues of compatibility, system support and application support.

'Ask Red Hat, or any Linux provider, how they will address those issues,' McCarthy said. 'Many utilities are developed by volunteer groups, and there is not much in the way of a help desk.'

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