Ended, the clone wars have?

I have done my damnedest to avoid posting publicly about Red Hat’s decision to stop publishing RHEL srpms. For one, the Discourse around it has been largely stupid. I didn’t want any part of the mess. For another, I didn’t have anything particularly novel to add. I’m breaking my silence now because the dust seems to have settled in a very beneficial way that I haven’t seen widely discussed. (To be fair, since I’ve been trying to avoid the discussion, I probably just missed it.)

Full disclosure: as you may know, my role at Red Hat was eliminated earlier this year. This does not make me particularly inclined to give Red Hat as a company the benefit of the doubt, but I try to be fair. Also: during my time at Red Hat, I was the program manager for the creation of CentOS Stream. However, I did not make business decisions about it, nor did I have any say on the termination of CentOS Linux or the recent sprm change.

My take on the situation

I won’t get into the entire history or Red Hat Enterprise Linux, clones, or competitors here. Joe Brockmeier’s ongoing “Clone Wars” series covers the long-term history in detail. I do think it’s worth providing my take on the last few years, though, so you understand my take on the future.

First of all, I don’t think Red Hat (or IBM, if you’d rather) acted with evil intent. That doesn’t mean I think the decision was correct, but I do think it was a legitimate business choice. I disagree with the decision, but as much as they didn’t ask me before, they sure as hell don’t ask me now.

If RHEL development started out with a CentOS Stream model, I’m not sure CentOS Linux (and the other RHEL clones) would have existed in the first place. But we don’t live in that timeline, so RHEL clones exist.

There are plenty of valid reasons for wanting RHEL but not wanting to pay for the subscription. It’s not just that people are being cheap. Until 2018, users of Spot instances on Amazon Web Services couldn’t use RHEL. In a former role, we had RHEL customers who used CentOS Linux in AWS precisely because they wanted to use Spot instances. Others used CentOS Linux in AWS because they didn’t want to deal with subscription management for environments that might come and go. (I understand that subscription-manager is much easier to work with now.)

So while Red Hat may be right to say that RHEL clones don’t add value to Red Hat (and I disagree there, too), RHEL clones clearly add value for their users, which include Red Hat customers. It’s fair to say that, for some people, the perceived value of a RHEL subscription does not match what Red Hat charges for it. How to solve that mismatch is not a problem i’m concerned with.

So what now?

Two community-driven clones popped up in the immediate aftermath of the death of CentOS Linux: Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux. Both of these aimed to fill the role formerly held by CentOS Linux: a bug-for-bug clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I never quite understood what differentiated them in practice.

But now duplicated effort becomes differentiated effort. Rocky Linux will continue to provide a bug-for-bug clone. AlmaLinux, meanwhile, will shift to making an ABI-compatible distribution — one where “software that runs on RHEL will run the same on AlmaLinux.” This differentiated effort allows those communities to serve different use cases. They now have their own niche to succeed or fail in.

Time will tell, but I think Alma’s approach is a better fit for most clone users. I suspect that most people don’t need bug-for-bug compatibility (except in the XKCD #1172 scenario). For many use cases, CentOS Stream is suitable. Of course, people make decisions based on what they think they need, not what they actually need. Third-party software vendors may end up being the deciding factor.

Given the different approaches Rocky and Alma are taking, I think Red Hat’s decision ended up being beneficial to the broader ecosystem. I don’t think it was done with that intent, and I am not arguing that the ends justify the means, but the practical result seems positive on the whole.

4 thoughts on “Ended, the clone wars have?

  1. I like this reframing. I’m inclined to agree; some good will come from this, but maybe not in the way that could have been predicted.

    Personally, the good that came for me is that all of the recent brouhaha made me realize I care a lot more about software freedom and privacy for individuals than I care about anything that’s happening in the enterprise software space. Sure, it’s great when the goals overlap, but I probably ceded far too much confidence in the corporate trickle-down approach to funding the construction of software I rely upon.

    It’s sad that Red Hat isn’t the Red Hat that many Red Hatters and community members want it to be. But many of those expectations were probably wishful thinking all along. Some of those expectations were flat out weird, unrealistic, or based on provably false premises. And I still struggle because to me Red Hat was just as much “the place I got to hang out with my friends every day” as it was a corporate entity, which was *definitely* an overloaded expectation.

    Alma’s new direction will probably work great for me. But you know what? I’ve also started playing with Debian-based distros for the first time in a decade, and that’s been pretty cool too.

  2. Yeah, I think it was really easy to forget that Red Hat is a company for a long time. It certainly earned parts of its reputation. Other parts were simply the community projecting its wishes on a corporation. Hopefully we’ve learned not to do that anymore.

  3. Seeing Oracle’s response, really gas-lighting, was so ironic. The reason I am into Linux these days is because I stumbled upon OpenSolaris while being a Windows user. I found it fascinating that you could use your computer in some other way. All I ever wanted (and much of that community) was for OpenSolaris to be a project box/ playground; that Oracle could cherry pick from OpenSolaris’ community innovation and then develop Solaris on a parallel track. Today, Red Hat is offering the playground project boxes of Fedora and CentOS Stream and everyone is acting like RHEL are bad guys. And how irksome it is that a lot of the modern Linux community don’t remember or never knew that Oracle pulled the rug out from under a similarly beneficial community/ corporate public good that was once OpenSolaris.

  4. I agree. It’s interesting to me that Microsoft, which was unquestionably hostile to Linux and is now pro-Linux, hasn’t had the same collective memory loss benefit that Oracle has. Or maybe it’s just that people are more willing to forget Oracle’s past for a moment because they’re dunking on the villain of the day?

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