May 27, 2018

Red Hat’s CoreOS acquisition is the current talk of the container world. Why did an open source giant (Red Hat) buy the vendor of an increasingly obscure open source operating system (Container Linux)?  Here are four possible reasons.

Once upon a time, CoreOS was one of the biggest names in the container ecosystem.

Arguably, it ceased to be that by the time Red Hat acquired the company. Although CoreOS was behind some very important container technologies, including etcd, CoreOS as a company had basically become just another Kubernetes vendor by 2017, focused on its Tectonic platform.

So why did Red Hat want to buy CoreOS? Here are four plausible explanations.

1. Red Hat Saw Tectonic as a Competitor to OpenShift

Although Red Hat and CoreOS both contributed important open source code to the container ecosystem, CoreOS Tectonic was a competitor with Red Hat OpenShift in some ways. By acquiring the company, Red Hat put it in a position to kill that competition.

Whether Red Hat will actually discontinue Tectonic, however, remains to be seen.

2. Red Hat Saw Container Linux as a Competitor to RHEL

CoreOS’s operating system, Container Linux by CoreOS, was designed to be a lightweight alternative to big-name Linux distributions, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

Whether Container Linux posed a serious threat to RHEL by 2018 is doubtful, but Red Hat may have wanted to shore up the market position of its flagship open source operating system all the same—especially in an era when everyone running container workloads wants lean, mean host operating systems.

3. Red Hat Wanted the CoreOS Team

CoreOS’s 130 or so employees will undoubtedly help Red Hat to continue to build out its open source container offerings.

Indeed, Brian Gracely, director for OpenShift Product Strategy at Red Hat, told me in an interview that “Kubernetes talent is very hard to find these days” when talking about the CoreOS acquisition.

Of course, Red Hat was already one of the leading contributors to Kubernetes development before the CoreOS acquisition. Red Hat’s Kubernetes expertise would run deep even without the addition of the CoreOS team. But the “acquihire” doesn’t hurt.

4. Red Hat Wants to Be King of Containers

Acquiring CoreOS adds significantly to Red Hat’s cachet within the container ecosystem.

Red Hat was already a leading contributor to projects such as Kubernetes, as noted above. But container technology was only one of many niches in which Red Hat operated. Red Hat was never a container-centric company in the way CoreOS was.

By acquiring CoreOS, Red Hat now can make a more credible claim to being the major open source container company (especially since Docker’s open source credentials are not as strong as some open source fans might like).

Christopher Tozzi

Christopher Tozzi has covered technology and business news for nearly a decade, specializing in open source, containers, big data, networking and security. He is currently Senior Editor and DevOps Analyst with Fixate.io and Sweetcode.io.