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Ex-Red-Hat brains decide to ride cloud

ISV-to-enterprise switch

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Cloud computing - or at least all the talk about it - is causing IT vendors to change their pitches on the off chance that cloud could actually end up generating some money.

And to that end, rPath - founded several years back on the promise of open-source appliances and an application packaging environment - is shifting gears with version 5.0 of its rBuilder, to manage software appliances on local virtual machines or remote ones running on clouds.

The other gear that rPath is shifting its focus from independent software vendors to the enterprise. ISVs were supposed to use rPath to make their jobs of creating and deploying applications easier thanks to the automation and patching that can be done through rBuilder's application repository.

Jake Sorofman, vice president of marketing at rPath, said the company has 65 customers using the rBuilder tool, and most of them are ISVs, including heavy hitters such as IBM and EMC. One suspects they bought the rBuilder tool just to see if they should buy up the company.

But now, according to Sorofman, rPath is taking what it has learned from supporting ISVs and aiming the rBuilder tool at those bigger enterprise fish. Such organizations have their own complex application deployment and support tools and who are also, in many cases, looking to deploy applications on virtual machines and, sometimes, on private or public clouds.

"This is getting harder and harder, and IT shops need something to fill in the gap between application development and production," Sorofman said. "At most companies, this is still a very manual process, and it is sort of inventing, from top to bottom, the software stack, every time. And with operating systems, servers, and software stacks changing, manually deploying systems and applications no longer works."

rPath wants rBuilder 5.0 to step into that gap and fill it by creating, deploying, provisioning, and maintaining application stacks on servers - physical or virtual - and on clouds. Not just on the malleable and heavily customizable rPath Linux that was originally created for the rBuilder tool and which was, for a while, the only Linux that applications packaged up by rBuilder could deploy on.

rPath was founded in 2005 by a whole bunch of ex-Red Hatters, and launched itself publicly in March 2006. The company's two co-founders include Erik Troan, the creator of Red Hat's Package Manager (RPM) and formerly chief technology officer and lead engineer at Red Hat, and Billy Marshall, who used to be vice president of sales in North America for Red Hat and a man credited with the idea of the Red Hat Network, the support system for RHEL.

At its launch, rPath had some Red Hat heavy hitters on staff, including Fedora-project founder and Red Hat Linux kernel team manager Michael Johnson, the former head of Red Hat operating system engineering who also created the Anaconda installer for Fedora Matt Wilson, the chief architect of the Red Hat Network software Cristian Grafton, and director of field engineering Nathan Thomas. Tim Buckley, the former chief operating officer at Red Hat, is rPath's chairman these days and Troan is chief technology officer.

General Catalyst Partners, North Bridge Venture Partners, and Wakefield Group have all kicked in venture funding to rPath. The company got $8.1m in its first round in 2006, $9.1m in its second round in 2007, and $10m in its third round 2008.

This money has helped rPath expand beyond deploying application stacks on its own rPath Linux to include Ubuntu, CentOS, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Linuxes, which can be deployed locally on physical iron, on ESX Server, XenServer, or Hyper-V virtual machines, or on cloud environments from Amazon, BlueLock, Globus, GoGrid, and Rackspace. The rPath Linux that the company's repository could build application stacks for is still supported, but not emphasized.

"We don't have an OS agenda," Sorofman said. "We needed an example distro that could show off what our tool could do."

Sorofman said that rPath will eventually support the clouds that Sun Microsystems and IBM are building. And in the case of Sun, that means supporting application packaging for Solaris, which Sorofman said would not be all that difficult, particularly since Solaris is open source.

You'll notice that Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora are not on that list of supported Linuxes, and neither is Oracle Enterprise Linux. This is apparently due to a licensing issue that rPath didn't want to go into, but it is still hopeful that it will be able to support RHEL and, or, Fedora at some point.

As for Oracle's clone of RHEL, Sorofman said that so far "it just doesn't come up with customers." The other obvious missing platform is Microsoft's Windows, which Sorofman said doesn't lend itself to the rBuilder application packaging approach, in terms of technology or licensing, but adds that rPath has figured out a way to support Windows application packaging and will do it at some time.

The good news, said Sorofman, is that Windows and other operating systems tend to be segregated at enterprises, so rPath can chase the Linux opportunity for now. "It really hasn't been a gating factor for us, but rather more of a targeting problem," said Sorofman.

So what is new with rBuilder 5.0? The software engineers have gone back to the drawing board and dramatically reduced the number of steps it takes to create an application stack, from something like 50 plus with prior rBuilder releases to, on average, to between nine and 11. The updated tool also has a new management console, which is really aimed at newbies to help them launch, start up, and shut down images running on clouds.

The latest version also has a set of open APIs that allow rBuilder to be embedded into systems management tools such as IBM's Tivoli and HP's OpenView, as well as various version control systems and build automation tools that companies might already be using. If you want to fit in the enterprise, you have to blend in, not expect companies to throw away their tools and habits.

The other big change with rBuilder 5.0 is that the software is available as a free public download that can be used to control up to 20 instances of software packages running locally on that many systems. Up until now, the freebie rBuilder appliances could be created at the rpath.org site, but companies could not get rBuilder itself and use it behind their firewalls. Just the same, there were over 5,000 projects out there on the rpath.org site and there have been over two million downloads of the rBuilder appliances created by project members in the past 12 months.

rPath was a bit cagey about what rBuilder 5.0 costs during an interview for this story, but after this story ran, said that a small customer is looking at something on the order $35,000 to get started using rBuilder, and the of "six figures" number Sorofman tossed out was for a medium sized configuration, which he said was for hundreds of servers and their appliances. ®

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