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Erik Troan, CTO, Founder, rPath

Erik TroanThe idea that software can exist on its own as a software appliance is a revolutionary idea. It's a revolution that Raleigh, N.C.-based rPath is helping to spearhead with its open source solutions that enable users to easily build and deploy software appliances.

Rpath rolled out its rPath Builder online software earlier this year and upgraded it in August.

The software appliance model that rPath is pioneering enables ISVs to bundle their applications together with the Linux operating system in a complete all-in-one stack.

Engineering a new way to deploy software using Linux is no small task. But it's one that rPath's CTO and founder Erik Troan is up for.

Troan is a veteran of Red Hat , where he held a number of different positions over the years, including vice president of product engineering, senior director of marketing and chief developer for Red Hat Software.

Troan had a hand in some of Red Hat's most notable innovations, including its Anaconda installer and the RPM package management system.

With rPath, Troan is deploying a new package management system called Conary, which, according to rPath, enables software appliances to be assembled from multiple package repositories distributed across the Internet.

Troan talked with internetnews.com about the difference between rPath and Red Hat and what challenges his startup faces.

Q: How is rPath as a company different than your previous employer Red Hat?

Well there is the easy answer, which is that rPath is venture-backed and Red Hat was bootstrapped, which makes for a completely different environment.

I don't want to say one way is better or worse; Red Hat probably would have been happy to have been venture-backed, but no one was investing in open source back then.

The acceptance of open source now is widespread, you don't have to convince people anymore that open source is safe, reasonable or valuable. You just have that instant acceptance that open source is something that people need to pay attention to.

Red Hat was really the pioneer in getting people to do that. When we first started talking about open source, it was "open what? You're giving away your source code? You can't do that."

The market acceptance is so much higher. I'm very proud to have been part of that at Red Hat. Companies like rPath, SugarCRM, Digium and others can now all go and take advantage of that.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges since you got the business off the ground?

Certainly the idea of the software appliance is a huge challenge for us and that still will remain so.

When you're building any business, though, the hardest thing that you're ever going to do is making sure that you hire people at the caliber that your opportunity needs.

How do you find great engineers, how do you hire them, how do you keep them engaged? There are a lot of really interesting things in the tech community, and engineers like working on interesting things.

I've been fortunate in that I've been at two companies now that have done some really neat work. But making sure we hire to that, that's something that as a manger I think about day and night.

Q: What is the biggest personal business challenge that you face?

It's not any one thing. I think we have a great vision, great people and great technology. There are a lot of execution challenges.

We got a verbal ok on a contract that had some big requirements, and then I was up all night thinking about how is this going to affect our product roadmap -- the customer promises we've made because of the support that is implied by the big contract.

So for me, it's not the big-picture things that keep me up at night I'm fortunate that I work with a great team. It's the things that sit squarely on my shoulders, getting the product out, managing the product roadmap, managing the bug backlog. The buck stops with me on those things.

Q: Is GPL 3 and the debate surrounding patents and DRM an issue that concerns you? Will if affect the rPath appliances in any way?

No I don't think it will affect us at all. I think the jury is still out on where GPLv3 will end up. As an individual I don't use DRM in anything at my house.

From the company's point of view, for rPath the DRM discussion is an important one to have. I'm glad that Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation has stimulated that discussion. I think it's going to affect the adoption of GPLv3 and how widely it gets adopted, but I'm fortunate in that it's not something I have to worry about on a daily basis.

Q: What are you most proud of about what rPath has been able to achieve since its inception?

I'm pleased at how rapidly rBuilder Online has seen an uptick. Obviously I'm an open source dweeb at heart.

I've been active in the Linux community since early 1992, and for me to have a hand in a project in which thousands and thousands of developers are getting value out of -- personally it's one of the ways that I've been able to give back to the open source community.