Last month, the open-source giant Red Hat made a decision that riled up the community of developers and, for some, seemed to go against the open-source ethos that attracted those users to Linux in the first place.
Now that community and those developers are starting to build a path forward, working around or even away from Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).
The RHEL distribution, which is intended for high-end commercial use cases, has driven a cottage industry of downstream distributions over the past two decades, something that the company actively attempted to rein in with a set of controversial decisions that upset the broader community—but decisions that Red Hat conceded they were fine with making out of a need of protecting its own ecosystem.
“There are tons of choices out there,” Mike McGrath, Red Hat’s vice president of Core Platforms, said in a recent interview. “People are welcome to choose what’s best for them.”
The thing is, though, that when the open-source community gets a roadblock put in front of it, users tend to make the most of finding a path forward. That has led affected distributions like Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux to adapt in clever ways.
Rocky Linux has chosen to continue basing its distribution on RHEL, but is using a clever workaround to get past Red Hat’s new limitations: It will base its builds on an analysis of pay-per-use cloud-based instances of RHEL—avoiding the need to download the RHEL source code behind a registration wall and working around potential violations of Red Hat’s license agreements.
AlmaLinux, meanwhile, has chosen to get something of a fresh start. While remaining a downstream distribution, it will begin pulling from CentOS Stream, a Red Hat distribution upon which RHEL is based, rather than RHEL directly. The distribution will also move past the bug-for-bug approach that characterized RHEL derivatives in the past, and even contribute some bug fixes upstream.
In an interview, AlmaLinux project chair benny Vasquez said that the project’s organizers were focused on finding a path forward that best serves its audience while building the ecosystem as a whole.
“What we’re doing is making sure that we’re sustainable, and whatever solutions we come up with, making sure that we’re meeting the needs of the users of AlmaLinux first and foremost,” she said.
AlmaLinux, which is built around a community nonprofit, chose this path by board consensus.
“There was obviously the like table-flip impulse,” Vasquez added. “But once you work through the gut reactions, then you can get to actual solutions. And we got there really quickly.’
The process hasn’t been perfect, admittedly—a tentative attempt by an AlmaLinux developer to send a bug fix to CentOS Stream initially caught Red Hat’s developers off-guard—but both sides of the discussion seem willing to attempt to make the relationship work.
Ripples in the Enterprise
Of course, the changes to RHEL aren’t just forcing community distributions to rethink their strategies. Some of Red Hat’s corporate competitors have been directly affected by the move as well, and it has led to some unusually public competitive moves.
Notably, Oracle—a company that has had an at-times fraught relationship with open-source software—wrote a blog post specifically criticizing Red Hat and its parent IBM for their poor handling of RHEL, which affected Oracle’s own downstream distribution, Oracle Linux.
(To give you an idea of how pointed the post got, it included this line: “By the way, if you are a Linux developer who disagrees with IBM’s actions, and you believe in Linux freedom the way we do, we are hiring.”)
But while Oracle made a statement with words, another open-source corporate standby, the German enterprise provider SUSE, decided to throw money at the problem, announcing it would spend $10 million or more to develop a fully supported fork of RHEL that, unlike Red Hat’s variant, would maintain an open code base for non-registered users. CIQ, a company associated with Rocky Linux, is collaborating with SUSE on the endeavor.
In an interview, SUSE’s chief technology & product officer, Dr. Thomas di Giacomo, characterized the move as a being directly spurred by Red Hat’s decision. “The change in policy ran in opposition to what we see as the spirit of open source,” he said.
He noted that many enterprise Linux users operate in mixed environments and often need to maintain multiple types of distributions, often with support that can help to work across different ecosystems. SUSE had been moving in this direction somewhat by launching an initiative called SUSE Liberty Linux last year, but now, they’re essentially launching an in-house replacement for RHEL that will allow downstream distributions for those who desire to make them.
When asked about the impact Red Hat’s move could have on the Linux ecosystem, he suggested that it set a precedent that could be dangerous if not pushed back against.
“There is clearly another path and, in our view, movement towards becoming less open is not how open source companies like ours should be competing,” he said. “We should compete on reliability, security, support, certification or cost-efficiency—not on openness.”
The Value of Downstream
One of the key discussion points that has emerged from this discussion is the value of downstream distributions, which Red Hat’s McGrath referred to as “rebuilders” that were creating competition in the enterprise Linux space while not creating significant value for the community.
In general, the creators of these distributions have defended the value they create for the community. AlmaLinux’s Vasquez pointed towards the audience that the community-driven distro helps to create for enterprise variants of Linux outside the corporate world by the virtue of the software being free.
“The other thing that we worked really hard to do is make Linux less intimidating,” she added. “One of the things that I found very early on was that it was really hard to learn Linux, because when you walked into a room with a question that was considered dumb, you got shut down. You didn’t get help—you got ridiculed. So we have been very intentional with making sure that the AlmaLinux community is welcoming.”
SUSE’s di Giacomo likewise defended downstream distros, noting that they often helped to strengthen the ecosystem, even in cases where they might not be directly contributing to the code of an upstream solution—in part because they often built uptake for open-source solutions in general. “We are all interdependent,” he said.
Looking Past FUD
Admittedly, much of what has stoked this debate, which is still going relatively strong more than a month in, is a healthy dose of an open-source culture mainstay: fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). People in the community are still mad, and that has made things tense in recent days as rumors blow up into flame wars.
While attempts have been made to clear the air—a recent discussion around AlmaLinux’s attempt to deliver bug fixes to CentOS Stream, which Red Hat’s McGrath weighed in on, offered one such opportunity—what seems to be most likely to help the community find its footing is a move towards action and important work.
“I don’t see any benefit in picking fights or acting out,” AlmaLinux’s Vasquez said. “I mean, what we need is a stable enterprise Linux that doesn’t have a cost associated with it and doesn’t have a license associated with it. So that’s what we’re providing.”
Di Giacomo pointed to this kind of positivity, which he had seen from other teams affected by the RHEL decision, as what would likely help the Linux ecosystem get past this moment.
“We know we are not alone in this,” he said. “The way we—and other members of the community—have responded is a prime illustration of the adaptability of the open source ecosystem, preserving choice and freedom of access and acting decisively when open source principles were challenged.”