Red Hat turns on Oracle and other Red Hat Linux clone-makers

No more Mr. Nice Linux, Red Hat is making life harder for its imitators: CentOS and Oracle.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Red Hat has decided it's no going to be Mr. Nice Linux anymore for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) clone makers such as Oracle and CentOS . Sure, in open-source, you share the code. That's rule one. But, that doesn't mean you need to make it easy for your rivals.

What Red Hat has done, for the last several months, is release its version of the Linux kernel with all its own patches incorporated into the RHEL code. Before that, pre-RHEL6, which was released in November 2010, Red Hat released the vanilla Linux code with its improvements and fixes in separate patches. This method made it very easy for an Oracle or another Linux distributor to see exactly what Red Had had done and thus made it easy for them to pick and choose which patches they'd adopt. Now, it's much harder both to do this and to copycat RHEL.

As Joe Brockmeier aptly put it, "It's sort of like asking someone for a recipe for the family's chocolate chip cookies, and getting cookie batter instead." Sure you can tease out what the ingredients are, but it's not easy.

That was by design. Bryan Stevens, Red Hat's CTO and VP of worldwide engineering, explained in his blog,

Our competitors in the Enterprise Linux market have changed their commercial approach from building and competing on their own customized Linux distributions, to one where they directly approach our customers offering to support RHEL.

Frankly, our response is to compete. Essential knowledge that our customers have relied on to support their RHEL environments will increasingly only be available under subscription. The itemization of kernel patches that correlate with articles in our knowledge base is no longer available to our competitors, but rather only to our customers who have recognized the value of RHEL and have thus indirectly funded Red Hat's contributions to open source that will advance their business now and in the future.

I asked Stevens to expand on this, but he wouldn't comment. Other sources at Red Hat told me what I had already supposed to be the truth. This isn't aimed so much at Red Hat's main server Linux rival, Novell, or RHEL clone makers such as CentOS or the now dormant White Box Enterprise Linux. No, the real target is Oracle.

Oracle, you see, has made no bones about both wanting to replace RHEL with its own RHEL copycat Linux distribution, Oracle Linux.

Larry Ellison, Oracle's CEO and God-King, has claimed "We [Oracle] spend a lot of time finding and fixing bugs in Red Hat Linux, and we have no problem with that-we do that with lots of operating systems. But sometimes when we fix a Red Hat Linux bug, Red Hat can take a very long time before making the fix. We'd fix the bug for our customers, and we'd send the bug off to Red Hat for them to fix, and sometimes the fix would be made very quickly but sometimes not."

I've never seen any proof of this. What I have seen, as has Red Hat, is that Oracle is going out of its way both to woo Red Hat customers away with its own house-brand of RHEL, Oracle Linux.

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Red Hat's real target: Oracle

Some people see what Red Hat as doing as 'obfuscating' its code. They believe that Red Hat, while complying with the letter of open source software law is breaking its spirit. I don't see it that way. The code is still there, it's just that Red Hat isn't going to hold your hand now as you work your way through it.

As Stevens wrote, "Red Hat often talks about upstream first, the practice of openly developing kernel features and bug fixes as part of the most recent upstream kernel before we ship them in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. We know the value of getting code open from day one, debating it in the public forum, and letting it mature through a cycle long before it reaches our customers' data centers. As the kernel community is well aware, it is standard practice for Red Hat to submit fixes that we find in supporting our customers."

"We believe that the open source development model produces the best software on the planet, and Red Hat will continue to increase the resources invested in openly developing software," he continued. These aren't just words. This is what Red Hat has been doing for years.

Red Hat's real goal is not making life hard for developers. No, it's as Jay Lyman, open-source and Linux analyst for The 451 Group, explained, "Red Hat's move shows an intensifying competition in the Linux market, with Red Hat seeking to thwart or slow the copying and reselling of its code. It also highlights the change in positioning of Linux distributions, which are expanding beyond a couple of main distributions to a number of other possibilities, driven primarily by virtualization and cloud computing."

Exactly. Red Hat is a business. It may well become the first purely open-source billion-dollar business. It's not going to do that though if it lets Oracle just walk away with its code. Red Hat is still more than happy to share code, but it's closing the door to the cut and paste school of Linux development.

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