Oracle takes on Red Hat in Linux code fight

Now, it's Oracle's turn to jump into the Red Hat open-source Linux code kerfuffle.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images

I'd been waiting for Oracle to throw its hat into the ring for the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) Linux source-code fight. I knew it was only a matter of time. 

On July 10, Oracle's Edward Screven, chief corporate architect, and Wim Coekaerts, head of Oracle Linux development, declared: "IBM's actions are not in your best interest. By killing CentOS as a RHEL alternative and attacking AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux, IBM is eliminating one way your customers save money and make a larger share of their wallet available to you."

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In fact, Oracle now presents itself as an open-source Linux champion: "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 rights."

As of June 21, IBM no longer publicly releases RHEL source code -- in short, the gloves are off, and the fight's on.

But this is also just the latest move in a fight that's older than many of you. Oracle and IBM have been rivals since 1977 when Oracle founder Larry Ellison took the relational database concept and SQL, which IBM had pioneered in 1970, and turned those technologies into the heart of his business. 

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Oracle has also had a… difficult relationship with Red Hat over the years, too. In 2006, Oracle announced it would support its databases on Linux. Specifically, it would support its programs on Oracle Unbreakable Linux, which was, like CentOS, a RHEL clone. 

Since then, Oracle and Red Hat started getting along better. Earlier, this year, for example, Oracle enabled users to subscribe to and run RHEL on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure

But the latest spat suggests that new, close-found harmony hasn't lasted long. 

Mike McGrath, Red Hat's vice president of core platforms, explained why Red Hat would no longer be releasing RHEL's code, but only CentOS Stream's code, because "thousands of [Red Hat] people spend their time writing code to enable new features, fixing bugs, integrating different packages and then supporting that work for a long time … We have to pay the people to do that work."

That sentiment is certainly true. But I also feel that Oracle takes the worst possible spin, with Screven and Coekaerts commenting: "IBM doesn't want to continue publicly releasing RHEL source code because it has to pay its engineers? That seems odd, given that Red Hat as a successful independent open source company chose to publicly release RHEL source and pay its engineers for many years before IBM acquired Red Hat in 2019 for $34 billion."

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So, what will Oracle do now? For starters, Oracle Linux will continue to be RHEL-compatible through RHEL 9.2. After that release -- and without access to the published RHEL source code -- there are no guarantees. But Screven and Coekaerts suggest that "if an incompatibility does affect a customer or ISV, Oracle will work to remediate the problem."

As for Oracle Linux's code: "Oracle is committed to Linux freedom. Oracle makes the following promise: as long as Oracle distributes Linux, Oracle will make the binaries and source code for that distribution publicly and freely available. Furthermore, Oracle welcomes downstream distributions of every kind, community, and commercial. We are happy to work with distributors to ease that process, work together on the content of Oracle Linux, and ensure Oracle software products are certified on your distribution."

That's a big promise to make. Of course, Oracle Linux has a small market share. And, unsurprisingly, most of its customers are already Oracle shops. Therefore, Oracle will find this promise easier to keep than most Linux distributors.

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Oracle, via Screven and Coekaerts, continued with some trash-talking: "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. … Finally, to IBM, here's a big idea for you. You say that you don't want to pay all those RHEL developers? Here's how you can save money: just pull from us. Become a downstream distributor of Oracle Linux. We will happily take on the burden."

Officially, Red Hat isn't commenting. But, that hasn't stopped some Red Hatters from firing back on social networks. Paolo Bonzini, a Red Hat distinguished engineer, asks: "Where did IBM (or Red Hat) say they don't want to pay for developers? Talk about strawmen and falsehoods!" While Paul Frields, a Red Hat director of engineering, sniped: "Typical, opportunistic nonsense by Oracle."

Yeah, there's no love lost here. Stay tuned, folks. There's more to come in this Linux and business tempest.

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