Red Hat decision turns world of open-source Linux upside down

The Linux political wars have been percolating for a month now, and depending on what side you belong to, the decision by Red Hat to restrict source code distribution for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is either a business decision that needed to happen or an act of betrayal.

The operating system brouhaha began with a June 21 posting from Mike McGrath, vice president of core platforms at Red Hat, regarding CentOS Stream, an open source development stream.

“As the CentOS Stream community grows and the enterprise software world tackles new dynamics, we want to sharpen our focus on CentOS Stream as the backbone of enterprise Linux innovation,” he wrote. “We are continuing our investment in and increasing our commitment to CentOS StreamCentOS Stream will now be the sole repository for public RHEL-related source code releases. For Red Hat customers and partners, source code will remain available via the Red Hat Customer Portal.”

There was an immediate outcry from Linux users and assorted organizations in the open-source world, so much so, that McGrath posted a follow-up blog in which he wrote that he had “spent a lot of time walking this weekend thinking about the reaction from our industry to my last blog post. We’ve been called evil; I was called an IBM exec who was installed to turn Red Hat closed source — and that’s only the “nice” stuff. So, let’s clear things up.

“Despite what’s currently being said about Red Hat, we make our hard work readily accessible to non-customers. Red Hat uses and will always use an open-source development model.”

In addition, Gunnar Hellekson, vice president and general manager, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, issued the following statement: “I want to reiterate that, despite the perception being pushed by some, Red Hat remains fully committed to honouring our open-source license obligations and delivering, openly and transparently, the source code that we use to build ALL of our products. For Red Hat Enterprise Linux in particular, this code is available in multiple places, including CentOS Stream which is an open window into how and what we use to build RHEL.”

A Jun. 30 article on Ars Technica explained Red Hat’s new source code policy thusly: “Last week, IBM-owned Red Hat continued furthering the evolution of CentOS Stream by announcing that it would be the sole repository for public RHEL-related source code releases, with RHEL’s core code otherwise restricted to a customer portal.”

The ensuing conflict, however, revolves around the fact RHEL is a stable production project, while CentOS Stream is a rolling release described by The Register last month in an article as “upstream of RHEL. It’s what will become the next point release of RHEL. At risk of sounding uncharitable, it’s a sort of continuous rolling beta of the next version of RHEL.”

Those opposing the Red Hat move reacted quickly and included:

  • Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen, the chief executive officer of SUSE, the German-based multinational open-source software company, writing that “for over 25 years, open source has revolutionized our world. From the growth of Linux to virtualization, to the move to the cloud, and more – many if not most advances in technology have had open-source innovation as a driving force. For me, it’s obvious why. You want to have as many minds as possible working to find solutions – under a framework where those developments are then given back, so everyone benefits.” He also announced that SUSE will “build, support and contribute a hard fork of the RHEL codebase to the community.”
  • A blog from Oracle condemning Red Hat’s action, released on July 10. It stated that “while Oracle and IBM have compatible Linux distributions, we have very different ideas about our responsibilities as open-source stewards and about operating under the GPLv2. Oracle has always made Oracle Linux binaries and source freely available to all. We do not have subscription agreements that interfere with a subscriber’s rights to redistribute Oracle Linux. On the other hand, IBM subscription agreements specify that you’re in breach if you use those subscription services to exercise your GPLv2. And now, as of June 21, IBM no longer publicly releases RHEL source code.”
  • A release from Rocky Linux on June 22 stating that there will be no disruption or change for any of its users, collaborators or partners as a result of the Red Hat decision. It went on to say that the “organization remains dedicated to its mission of delivering a community-based, accessible, and transparent EL (Enterprise Linux) operating system. The project pledges to keep its promise to maintain the full lifespan of support for Rocky 8 and 9, and to continue to produce future RHEL-compatible versions as long as the option remains, allowing organizations to maintain the flexibility, control, and freedom they rely upon for their critical infrastructure. This is the open-source way.”
  • And then there was AlmaLinux, which opted to take an entirely different approach. In a blog released on July 13 entitled The Future of AlmaLinux is Bright, written by Benny Vasquez, the chair of the organization’s board, she stated members had voted to “continue to aim to produce an enterprise-grade, long-term distribution of Linux that is aligned and ABI (Application Binary Interface) compatible with RHEL in response to our community’s needs to the extent it is possible to do, and such that software that runs on RHEL will run the same on AlmaLinux. The blog went on to say that for a “typical user, this will mean very little change in your use of AlmaLinux. Red Hat-compatible applications will still be able to run on AlmaLinux OS, and your installs of AlmaLinux will continue to receive timely security updates.”

The question now becomes, what happens from here? For an answer to that, IT World Canada reached out to Fred Chagnon, principal research director at Info-Tech Research Group, as well as Forrester Research principal analyst Naveen Chhabra and Forrester senior analyst Alvin Nguyen.

In a joint response via email, Chhabra and Nguyen wrote that Red Hat is a prominent member of the Linux community, however, in the near term, “this announcement will have little immediate impact on sales/revenue as it drives most of its revenue from enterprises that will likely not mind this move. It has a large customer base which is invested enough in RHEL for this to not impact their decisions.

“It will impact the companies that depend on Red Hat’s public contributions to further their own engineering efforts. The organizations dependent on their code base will have to fork (SUSE, AlmaLinux already have) and although the actual source is driven by the Linux Foundation, Red Hat has been a source for others for a long time. This seems to go against the Linux community ethos of sharing and collectively driving progress. Collective development has been the key force driving open source.”

Mid to long-term, they write, “as mentioned earlier, this probably has little immediate impact, but this sets up Red Hat to be more susceptible to suffer from market losses due to poor performance later on. This will have long-term consequences where external support for user feedback, root cause analysis, fixes/workarounds will diminish.

“Isolating themselves from the Linux community they have developed may mean more customers/revenue or more control short term, but they need to prove they can maintain their performance.

“If RHEL starts having more issues or has a poorer customer experience later on, the availability of other Linux options will impact them. We will be paying close attention to future moves at Red Hat, specifically around staffing levels and leveraging AI/automation to keep or improve their performance.”

Chagnon, meanwhile, said he is “very much in line with Red Hat on this in that they have every right to basically do what they did. They still contribute to the Linux project at large, they’re still probably one of the largest contributors to that project. There are other large contributors, obviously, like Microsoft and Intel. But as long as they continue to contribute to it, I fail to understand why so many people feel that they’ve sort of failed in whatever social contract they have to the open-source community.”

There are, he said, currently three camps who are participating in the Red Hat backlash: “There are the end users themselves who have been using either CentOS but nowadays, Rocky and Alma as a free alternative to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, that they could have otherwise been paying for. They’re concerned their risk is that they’re not going to get as enterprise grade of a platform anymore, because it won’t be as attached to the source of RHEL, that it once was.”

That risk, he said, was always there when they made the choice to use it as opposed to “proper Red Hat Enterprise Linux. That was the risk that they were taking on and here we are in July 2023 and that risk has been realized.”

Camp number two, said Chagnon, are the “organizations themselves who are slinging mud at Red Hat. But these are the ones who have hitched their wagon to that cart by choice and said, ‘we’re going to create a product on top of another product that somebody else has built, and we’re going to monetize that.’

“The real risk when you do that is, what if that platform changes? What if the license to that platform changes? What if Red Hat ceased to exist tomorrow? What if IBM did to Red Hat what Oracle did to OpenSolaris? It could happen because it has happened. That’s the risk that they took on. When they made that decision, they could have as easily hitched their wagons to Debian, a more freely open operating system that isn’t owned by an IBM or anyone like it.  They could have done that, but they didn’t, for good reason, Red Hat is a solid product.”

The third camp, he said, is made up of organizations like Oracle who are “just slinging mud at Red Hat because it makes them feel good. Because right now Red Hat’s stock, socially, is falling, and therefore they’re capitalizing on that. They are just looking to sort of gain here in the dispute. But I find it a bit rich for Oracle to come out swinging and say ‘we promise to keep Linux free and open,’ when literally the day after they bought Sun Microsystems, they shut down OpenSolaris.”

Saturday on the ITWC podcast network, listen to an an interview with Gregory Kurtzer, founder of the Rocky Linux project. Also here is Jim Love, CIO of IT World Canada, in a late breaking interview with benny Vasquez, chair of AlmaLinux OS Foundation.  An upcoming episode will involve Red Hat senior executives Mike McGrath and Gunnar Hellekson.

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Paul Barker
Paul Barker
Paul Barker is the founder of PBC Communications, an independent writing firm that specializes in freelance journalism. He has extensive experience as a reporter, feature writer and editor and has been covering technology-related issues for more than 30 years.

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