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.