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By | Ashlee Vance 26th June 2007 23:07

Red Hat's Exchange roars like a muted lamb

Broad and thin

Have you heard of the Red Hat Exchange? Rest easy, you're not alone.

Launched last month, RHX, as the kids call it, was meant to solidify Red Hat's place as the epicenter of all things tied to Linux servers. Partners such as MySQL, Pentaho, Zimbra, SugarCRM and Alfresco have allowed Red Hat to lead the sales, subscription and support efforts around their applications tied to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Ultimately, the software makers hope that a Red Hat-backed, centralized code warehouse will drive more business.

As it turns out, RHX has met with a lukewarm reception.

The program appears to have shot right past the Linux evangelists, who usually seem tapped in to all things penguin. For example, we recently asked one of our more trusted and vigilant open source chums what he thought about RHX.

"I wasn't even aware of it until now," he said. "Sounds vaguely like what SpikeSource is doing."

Such sentiments are backed up by the RHX site. When Red Hat announced the project last month, three or four reviews appeared by the next day for most of the products. Here we are four weeks later, and the most discussed software package is Zenoss with 7 reviews. Four looks like the average number of reviews for each package, meaning hardly anyone has bothered to chime in about the software since the original launch.

Linux zealots tend to be, well, zealots more than happy to share their opinions on everything from cumquat infestations to koala shavings. Surely something as popular as MySQL would ignite the feedback mechanism.

Red Hat may be okay with bypassing the evangelist crowd. RHX actually targets business users who want to try out open source packages and then rollout the software they like with Red Hat's good name behind them. On that front, Red Hat seems to be doing so-so thus far.

"RHX has actually been very positive for us, though I don't think we or Red Hat were expecting much upfront," said Matt Asay, a VP at Alfresco, an open source content management software maker. "It has not driven millions of downloads yet for us.

"That said, we have RHX-driven deals in negotiation with major companies in both the US and South America, which is not what we were expecting. We invested in RHX as a way to reach the SME (small- the medium-sized enterprise) market, which hasn't been Alfresco's core market traditionally."

Red Hat corporate backs up the notion that RHX has gone broader than expected.

"The initial focus was on North American small businesses," said Matt Mattox, a director at Red Hat. "To our pleasant surprise, we are seeing businesses of all sizes. There's one evaluation underway, for example, for tens of thousands of users."

RHX has also drawn the interest of customers in Europe and Asia, forcing Red Hat to extend its support system to non-English speaking countries "sooner than later," according to Mattox.

While advocates point to the surprises in RHX's appeal, there's no denying that the program seems to have zoomed past the open source zeitgeist thus far.

"So, again, in terms of traffic, it's not yet on par with Sourceforge and other avenues for us," Asay said. "But it has been surprisingly fruitful given the number of downloads and trials we've had through it. If we had this same ratio of download to trial to conversion on Sourceforge, we'd be IPO'ing tomorrow."

VMware's Technology Network (VMTN) joins Sourceforge as another developer destination far more powerful than RHX, according to those interviewed for this story, who also complained about the lack of traffic generated by Red Hat's software house.

It's big, red baby

It's crucial to note that RHX remains in its infancy.

"The evaluation period for these applications is typically sixty days and in some cases more," Mattox reminded us. "We anticipate some of the reviews from trials that are underway to come in over the next few weeks."

Red Hat is also looking into possible changes around the RHX review mechanism. Customers could find a deeper review system more fruitful where they could comment on, say, how easy a package is to install or the quality of a GUI rather than broadly describing the entire ISV experience in one go.

A bit of innovation could go a long way toward making RHX more compelling for customers. At the moment, the entire RHX site feels rather clinical and certainly fails to inspire.

The software maker could also, as we see it, use some more channel and hardware vendor backing, and Mattox tells us such efforts are underway.

We remain bullish about Red Hat's long-term prospects with RHX. Lord knows the open source crowd could use some organization around the myriad applications that have forced their way into data centers. The project, however, does seem a bit risky for the ISVs in that Red Hat could end up owning the direct line to their customers and would dominate the main open source software marketplace.

It will take a heck of a lot of effort on Red Hat's part to reach such a state. In the meantime, collectives such as VMTN, Sourceforge and SpikeSource seem more than capable of keeping Red Hat honest. ®

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