A tip of the hat to IBM's Red Hat strategy - building a worthy competitor to VMware and Microsoft

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko May 5, 2021
Pivoting off of last week’s Red Hat Summit, a look at its edge announcements and how Red Hat contributes to IBM’s broader growth strategy.


The network edge is the new battleground for IT product vendors and service providers  as the nexus of ubiquitous connectivity, particularly low-latency 5G wireless and smart, connected devices and sensors are moving IT’s center of gravity away from consolidated data centers. The resulting explosion of  locally-generated data promises to redistribute enterprise infrastructure after years of centralization in private data centers and hyperscale cloud environments.

The availability of computing hardware and analytical software capable of processing data in situ on compact, power-efficient systems at edge locations like retail stores, manufacturing facilities, distribution centers and wireless base stations promises to extract previously untapped value from the myriad smart sensors, connected machines and mobile devices spewing data at unprecedented rates. The changing architectural zeitgeist has also created a new competitive front in the war among IT product vendors and cloud service providers to capture enterprise spending for modern application infrastructure and development platforms.

Since its acquisition by IBM, Red Hat has been an increasingly aggressive and credible alternative to VMware and Microsoft as a multi/hybrid cloud platform and uses its bona fides as an open source champion to bolster the case for its cloud-agnostic technology stack based on Linux and OpenShift. The company used last week’s Red Hat Summit to promote its vision, extend its portfolio and tout customer successes as Red Hat is central to IBM’s cloud strategy. Indeed, IBM’s Q1 2021 earnings report showed that Red Hat, which is part of its Cloud and Cognitive Systems segment, grew 15% year-over-year when normalized for historical comparability and currency changes. During the earnings call, IBM CFO Jim Kavanaugh said it has 3,000 customers for Red Hat’s hybrid cloud platform and has “tripled the revenue base of OpenShift since we acquired Red Hat.”

(Red Hat)

Turning the edge Red

Red Hat Summits usually feature an updated version of its Enterprise Linux platform, but this year’s edition, 8.4, included significant new features designed for edge deployments wrapped into what the company calls Red Hat Edge. Part of its broader hybrid cloud strategy, Red Hat Edge is designed for three categories that the company believes will propel edge deployments for:

  • Enterprise applications at retail, hospitality or other remote locations that require timely analysis of locally-generated data.
  • Industrial operations where the real-time collection and processing of a growing stream of sensor data can significantly increase the efficiency and reliability of manufacturing and logistics operations.
  • Network service providers (particularly wireless) that want to deliver differentiated applications for mobile users that exploit high-bandwidth, low-latency 5G networks.

The next release (8.4) of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) addresses edge, i.e. remote, resource- and space-constrained, scenarios via several new features and enhancements, including:

  • Update to Red Hat’s container engine, Podman, to improve the distribution and management of container workloads on edge systems.
  • Support for bare metal systems, commonly used for embedded or and small form factor systems common at the edge, in Image Builder, Red Hat’s software for creating customized OS images.
  • A new, lightweight micro Universal Base Image (UBI) designed for edge container environments that is optimized for efficiency and security.

(Red Hat)

Red Hat identifies several existing features that are instrumental to improving edge performance, security, operational efficiency and interoperability with existing data center and cloud systems, including:

  • Support for 3-node OpenShift clusters and remote worker nodes.
  • Centralized cluster management across all environments.
  • Automation of administrative tasks using Ansible and Tracer, Red Hat’s utility to simplify patch management and system updates.
  • Enhanced security via network-bound disk encryption (NBDE) and an RBAC (role based access control) policy for crypto management. NBDE is a type of policy-based decryption that allows configured servers to unlock encrypted volumes from a network share without a password.
  • Red Hat Integration and Data Services that facilitate incorporating external applications, APIs, message/event queues and data sources into edge environments.
  • Red Hat Insights, which uses predictive analytics to analyze operational data to identify system problems, misconfigurations and security issues and recommend steps to fix or mitigate each. Insights for OpenShift offers similar guidance container environments while Insights for Ansible helps establish consistent automation processes across hybrid cloud and edge systems.

(Red Hat)

Red Hat’s edge philosophy - hybrid and open

Red Hat CEO Paul Cormier drove a stake in the ground last year when he outlined the company’s philosophy for the edge by describing edge as an evolutionary extension of existing data center environments. He wrote:

We can look at the edge as the newest IT footprint, becoming an extension of the data center just like bare-metal, virtual environments, private cloud and public cloud. In a sense, edge computing is a summation of the other four footprints, blending pieces from each to create infrastructure aimed at tackling specific customer demands that traditional IT models cannot address. But unlike the other footprints, edge computing has two key delineating factors:

  • It simply does not exist without the hybrid cloud.
  • The foundation of edge computing must be open or it WILL fail.

By “hybrid,” Cormier means that the edge must use the same container platforms, albeit scaled down, security policies, monitoring and automation tools and administrative processes as data center or public cloud environments. Instead of scaling up these environments on central cloud infrastructure, the edge scales out and distributes them to where data is generated.

Cormier contends that openness fosters technological innovation and consistency at the edge. He writes that:

Innovation can be easily crippled by fragmentation and, worse, the introduction of ‘proprietary’ or open core models...If this innovation is chained via ‘edge edition’ technologies rather than being driven by common, industry-wide open standards, fragmentation rears its head again.

RHEL 8.4 and related products embody Red Hat’s view of the edge as an extension of a multi- hybrid-cloud environment based on open source technologies.

Expanding the SaaS portfolio

Red Hat also introduced three SaaS products for developers and data scientists:

  • OpenShift Streams for Apache Kafka to publish, read, store and process events and other streaming data. Kafka is used by the vast majority of large enterprises for applications like payment processing, vehicle tracking and fleet management, IoT data capture and event-driven microservices.
  • OpenShift Data Science to develop, train and test machine learning (ML) models using tools and frameworks like Jupyter notebooks, TensorFlow and PyTorch. The service provides a complete ML workflow for tasks like data preparation, model development, testing, CI/CD deployment and model visualization.
  • Red Hat OpenShift API Management is a platform for storing, configuring and publishing APIs and includes an API gateway to manage authentication (including support for SSO systems), usage and routing.

My take

Red Hat’s intense focus on edge deployments illustrates a broader reevaluation within IT of prevailing centralized cloud architectures designed for maximum capital and operational efficiency. Processing data at the source (IoT) or nearest the user (mobile edge computing, aka MEC) becomes more common as organizations realize the impracticality of consolidating data from various IoT devices, machine telemetry and remote users and customers. However, as Red Hat’s Edge illustrates, platform consistency doesn’t make it a binary choice between the cloud or the edge. Instead, the goal is to extend the cloud to the edge.

Positioning the edge as part of the cloud makes Red Hat well positioned to be a preferred provider of distributed, multi-cloud platforms and capture a growing share of the cloud market. Furthermore, spending on edge infrastructure, which IDC estimates to have a CAGR of about 13% through 2024, can be a crucial element of revenue growth at IBM.

IBM has built a compelling multi- edge-cloud story via a consistent, open application platform based on Linux and Kubernetes, and a robust set of management and security tools from Red Hat and two recent acquisitions, StackRox for container security and Turbonomic for cloud automation and management. As I wrote a few weeks ago, a rejuvenated IBM is evolving into a formidable competitor to VMware, Microsoft and AWS in enterprise cloud infrastructure and the developments at the Red Hat Summit illustrate how pivotal open source products are to its technology and marketing strategies.

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