It’s been a big year for SUSE. Last year at SUSECon 13 the team announced new development versions of SUSE Cloud and a service pack for SUSE Linux Enterprise 11. Since then they’ve turned SUSE Cloud into a real product and SLE 12 has finally been released. New technology and new products were the items SUSE went into the convention with, leading with a theme of ‘Always Open’ to remind everyone that even though SUSE are developing new tech, it’s always open source.
SUSECon 14 was again a bustling week of events for people on all levels of the IT spectrum, with more attendees and more breakout sessions than ever before. LU&D returned to the event to talk to some of SUSE’s top personnel, and get a feel for how SUSE is being seen in 2014.
“If you would ask me one word to describe last year… and I’m not sure if it’s a proper English word but you can maybe help me with it… I would probably say delivery.”
We were talking to Gerald Pfeifer the day before SUSECon officially opened, during the press briefings. Like SUSE itself, Gerald, Ralf Flaxa and Nils Brauckmann are all German so English is not their native language. “Delivery on promises, delivery on plans. Is delivery right?”
We explained that perhaps delivering was a better term, but what he meant was still abundantly clear. SUSE had delivered on what they had set out to do.
“And some things we were planning to and hadn’t said we were.” Gerald continued. “If I was to look back a year, I recall Nils was on stage and talking about storage, how we want to enter this market. Now, technically we haven’t delivered the beta yet but we have it. Essentially. It’s just going to take a couple of weeks until it’s really out.”
Nils himself had some insight into how this delivery of new products and technology was quantifiably good for SUSE’s business: “First of all we continued, not differently, but continued to grow… That means all the business metrics are growing. [This is] from bookings. So we grew our user invoicing at a rate of 27 per cent for the first half of the year, which is pretty strong.
“Recognised revenue, which is what shows up on the balance sheets at the end of the day, is growing at a rate of 16 per cent – better than ever before, quite frankly – so we’re growing there fast.
“But sometimes people don’t really think about it. You can only grow by selling new products and generating new customers, because just by doing repeated business, renewals, you cannot grow that fast.”
And just how well is new business doing for SUSE? “The new business is growing at a rate of 47 per cent for the first half of the year, so 65 per cent of big bookings were due to new subscription bookings.” Nils says proudly. “We continued to invest and enhance our solutions… we talked SUSE 11 SP3 last time, now we’re talking SUSE 12 – the next-generation platform of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server with optimisations and new functionality in the area of increasing availability and uptime, specifically the kernel live-patching capability that we also announced at the show.”
Live patching is huge thing – it’s one of the last pieces of tech that the Linux kernel was missing compared to Unix and a feature many legacy users were holding out over. Why had it taken over 20 years for a solution to be made?
“Because it’s damned hard!” was the refreshingly blunt reply we got from Ralf. Apparently SUSE had been working on it for over a year now. “To live-patch a kernel is a very difficult task, and rather than every distro doing its own proprietary thing – [for example, Oracle] – I think the Linux community had to learn and had to discuss what the best framework is. Once this framework was there, then different distroslike Red Hat and SUSE developed on top of that their solution, how to actually implement live patching. Our project is kgraft, and we’re now in the process of upstreaming out patches. A recent kernel version has the underlying framework that was needed, and with kgraft and a patch on top of the upstream kernel it will work. We’re now in the process of bringing all of it upstream piece by piece; we’re not going to hold back this technology, we will give it back to the kernel.”
SUSE takes pride in respecting the traditions of free software and being open source as a company, and they’ve found that it doesn’t hamper their business at all, according to Ralf: “You can be successful as a business and still stay true to the roots and concepts of open source – not becoming a monopoly or very selfish. So we try and be very open, we’re doing good by doing this. We have customers coming to us and saying it’s so much easier to work with us, because we’re not trying to lock them in.”
The relationship with customers and partners for SUSE is important, taking their feedback and suggestions not only to keep these customers happy, but also to improve SLES for other customers and aid the open source community: “Getting feedback from them is important so we can have business reviews, technical reviews,” Gerald tells us. As the product management lead, this feedback is integral to his job.
“We have an engineering team, with product managers, but most of the engineering done on most of our products is actually not done by SUSE… [We work with the] partner communities – that’s actually a very natural thing for us and is something we have developed over the years. So in my department I have a team of technical account managers; their title means different things to different companies, but what they actually do is they manage the technically collaboration with internal teams and IBM, Dell, Fujitsu, Cisco, HP and a few others. The reason I’m mentioning this is when we say partners, working with partners, this is not just: we build the product then we do a press release and then we do press briefings and then here’s the product and now it’s time to sell it, or the partner uses and sells the product. It’s really: we’ve been working with those partners and many others for years, some of them just on SLE 12, which means there’s a tight integration; some code is developed specifically by partners for products, which means a lot of testing happens, so that’s really key. And if the same partners hopefully take the product also to market, that’s certainly something we do appreciate. That’s mostly on the hardware side, but also happens on the software side. Think of the SAPs who developed their software on top of SUSE, which then means something like Hana has been made available on SUSE for a long time. We also have the general partners, distributors, resellers, but also some of the consultancies where we’re doing best practice… they can actually use SUSE to drive their business. It may be a bigger part of that or a smaller part somewhere in the tech.”
Live patching and a new SUSE are big, but Ralf thinks their cloud offering is bigger: “SUSE cloud is the new kid on the block. So for many of our customers – and they did this for proof of concept – they used it in development and test environments, and in these environments they are now going productive. The next step I think is to leverage it in a bigger infrastructure version. But that is because SUSE Cloud is a very young product. There aren’t really mission critical workloads on it yet, neither from us or from the competition. A dev test is there now to go productive – to use it in production for developers and testers. The next step now will be for our customers to decide which workloads, business workloads, they’ll put in the cloud. What we see there is elasticity of the cloud, so peak workloads that they may have to include at the end of the quarter, which maybe includes not-so mission critical analysis that they can do at the end of the quarter. They might do it in the cloud and things like that, and I think that will happen next year.”
SUSE are making big steps then, as shown by all the new toys at SUSECon. Products are out of beta, and Gerald is already thinking ahead to what his teams can do to make 2015 another exciting year for SUSE. As Nils succinctly put it: “We continue to invest in innovation in areas where it matters to enterprise customers.”