RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – It’s a rare day indeed when chairmen and chief executive officers go public with complaints about a rival, let alone a long-time partner. But when Larry Ellison of Oracle took some pot shots at Red Hat in an interview with The Financial Times last month, the Red Hatters’ CEO Matthew Szulik was quick to respond.

In a letter run across the top of The FT’s editorial page on April 20, Szulik took on the role as Linux and open source evangelist. He stoutly and resolutely defended the acquisition of Atlanta-based middleware developer JBoss – the deal that triggered Ellison’s angst. Further, Szulik stressed that the rise of open source software such as Linux is remaking the proprietary software industry (which Oracle represents) just as Japanese companies have turned the automotive industry inside out.

The letter offers insight into how Szulik thinks and preaches the Linux gospel. And he is the man at the helm of the Raleigh-based Linux developer and services provider, which is growing faster that kudzu, so what he says is important.

“Open versus closed. Collaborative versus proprietary. Independent versus exclusive. The customer wants to pay for value delivered,” Szulik wrote. “Red Hat represents, to a worldwide network of software developers, a value that is not for sale – the freedom to choose.”

The Ellison broadside as well as some harsh comments from analysts helped drive down Red Hat (Nasdaq: RHAT) stock prices in the days following the JBoss deal. But the stock has rebounded, in part after IBM, another Red Hat partner, unlike Ellison, dismissed criticism that the JBoss deal made Red Hat a potential rival.

Szulik downplayed the notion that Red Hat would challenge Oracle, let alone IBM.

“Oracle generates more in interest income than Red Hat generates in annual revenues and Red Hat’s acquisition has little to do with future strategies to enter an already commoditised database market,” Szulik wrote The FT. “Instead, through the planned acquisition of JBoss, Red Hat sees an opportunity to grow through independence, clearly focused on creating value through the collaborative process of open source software development. I would suggest that what is happening here is the evolution of software development and testing that tries the very core of proprietary ways.”

Szulik said that customers have been “taken for granted by many technology companies” but in the age of the Internet they are now “front and center”. No longer do companies face what he called “lock-in” because open source is there as an alternative. What he called “the proprietary walled gardens” of software are coming down.

He noted how open source led to the development of top web-server software (Apache) and web application server (Tomact) as well as Linux and how chief information officers were voting for the Red Hat by labeling it “the number one source of value” in a recent survey.

Szulik also said he welcomed Ellison’s comments that Oracle might enter the Linux space. With “congratulations”, Szulik wrote: “The open source community welcomes more public contribution from the large proprietary software industry.”

Open source isn’t going away, either, Szulik warned. Citing how the Japanese automobile industry overcame many obstacles to crack the collective General Motors, Ford and Chrysler grip on the U.S. market, Szulik said open source will use the same tools to widen the growing crack in proprietary software’s hold – “through innovation and a commitment to the customer”.