RHEL and its Linux relatives and rivals: How to choose

There's a whole family of Red Hat Enterprise Linux variants, each with its own users. We'll break down the family tree and explain what's suited for different needs.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Man at computer workstation

Lately, I've noticed a lot of confusion about Red Hat's Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and related distros, such as AlmaLinux OS, Oracle Linux, and Rocky Linux. In addition, there are Red Hat's own RHEL variants, CentOS Stream and Fedora. Mea culpa. It is confusing. Let me help straighten things out.

To start with the basics, these are all open-source Linux distributions. That means anyone -- yes, even you -- can take RHEL's source code and make your own RHEL-based distro. Mind you, that's much easier said than done. 

You see, you can't simply pull the code from a Git repository and compile it. That would be way too easy. Instead, starting in 2011, Red Hat incorporated its own patches directly into its kernel tree. All the code's still in there, but, as one person put it at the time, "It's sort of like asking someone for a recipe for the family's chocolate chip cookies, and getting cookie batter instead." 


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For years afterward, that didn't stop those capable of recipe archaeology from teasing out the code. Oracle, for example, has been copycatting RHEL in its Oracle Linux since 2006.

However, many people used a community RHEL distro called Community Enterprise Operating system (CentOS) instead of Oracle Linux. Founded by Gregory Kurtzer, this was the most successful of the early RHEL clones. Indeed, CentOS proved to be far more popular than RHEL in such critical markets as web servers. 

Why? Simple. CentOS doesn't cost you one thin dime. If you use RHEL commercially, you must pay a licensing fee. That's the difference anyone can see. The hidden difference, and why Red Hat became the first billion-dollar Linux company and then IBM ponied up $34 billion for the company, is that many companies need the first-rate support Red Hat provides to its RHEL customers. 

Many, but not all. Indeed, RHEL doesn't even have a majority of the RHEL operating system family customer base. That's because if you just need an RHEL-style operating system for something simple such as web or office servers, you can easily find web and system administrators that can keep CentOS running without any outside help. The same is true for anyone not doing any fancy programming. There are lots of developers who know how to build software around the RHEL family. 

Red Hat knows this. So, first, the company adopted CentOS in 2014. CentOS continued on its free license way, while Red Hat hoped it could persuade CentOS users to become RHEL customers. It didn't work out.

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So, in late 2020, Red Hat changed CentOS from being a stable RHEL clone to being a rolling Linux release distro, CentOS Stream. In addition, the plan was that while Red Hat would continue to support the older CentOS 7 release until at least June 30, 2024, the newer CentOS 8 version, instead of being supported until 2029, would run out of support at the end of 2021. 

That went over like a lead balloon with the hundreds of thousands of CentOS users. 

As one user pointed out, "the use case for CentOS is completely different than CentOS Stream. Many, many people use CentOS for production enterprise workloads, not for dev. CentOS Stream may be ok for dev/test, but it is unlikely people are going to adopt CentOS Stream for prod." 

Nevertheless, Chris Wright, Red Hat's CTO, has said, "CentOS Stream is stable enough for production." Still, Wright added, "CentOS Stream now sits between the Fedora Project's operating system innovation and RHEL's production stability."

I take this to mean, CentOS Stream is stable enough for adventurous companies that value getting the newest features over a guarantee of rock-hard stability. Fedora, of course, remains Red Hat's community Linux for developers and users who want to be on the RHEL's family leading edge.

But, where does that leave the old CentOS users? For them, there are two major choices: AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux. 

Remember when I said people were ticked off by Red Hat's CentOS Stream move? Two leading Linux developers, CloudLinux founder and CEO Igor Seletskiy, and CentOS founder and CIQ CEO Gregory Kurtzer, decided to respond by creating new RHEL clones. Both decided that the old CentOS needed to come back.

As Seletskiy said then, "The demise of the CentOS stable release left a very large gap in the Linux community, which prompted CloudLinux to step in and launch a CentOS alternative." CloudLinux, for those that don't know it, is a commercial RHEL clone, but it's designed especially for Linux web hosting. 

AlmaLinux, however, is a free community Linux. Calling AlmaLinux's shots is the AlmaLinux OS Foundation. This is a 501C6 non-profit foundation.

Rocky Linux is also a free community Linux. It's governed by the Rocky Enterprise Software Foundation (RESF), a Type B Corp. The idea here, Kurtzer said, is that "Open-source projects should not be subject to corporate control or business agendas. What makes a successful open source project isn't having a single individual behind it or even having a massive company behind it; what makes it successful is having many individuals and many companies all supporting and managing it collectively, in line with shared interests. That has been our goal with Rocky Linux and the RESF from day one. The RESF charter and bylaws reflect our intent that neither Rocky Linux nor any RESF project will ever be controlled, purchased, or otherwise influenced by a single entity or individual."

Now both groups offer support for their RHEL clones, but you don't need to pay a penny to use them. As Kurtzer observed, "Support is the first offering in our open-source product lineup. We can do multiple support models, but the one that is most interesting and valued is 'by the person' rather than by the core, node, socket, or entitlement. In this model, we support the people by providing a level of escalation over and above what they might have access to now."

Both organizations also work hard at keeping their releases in sync with Red Hat's own. So, for example, Red Hat released RHEL 8.7 and RHEL 9.1 in November. AlmaLinux 8.7 and AlmaLinux 9.1 and Rocky Linux 8.7 and Rocky Linux 9.1 followed close on its heels.

So, what's the right one for you? It depends on your needs.

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If you need serious corporate support, RHEL has a lot to offer. If your company is all about Oracle, you might as well use Oracle Linux. 

Next, I'm not crazy about using CentOS Stream for production, but if you need the latest and greatest Linux features and you have in-house expertise, go for it. If you're a developer and you're happy with living with the bleeding edge, say hello to Fedora. Just please don't use it on production servers. 

Finally, if you and your crew cut your teeth on the old CentOS, either AlmaLinux or Rocky Linux are excellent choices. Personally, I'm moving my servers from CentOS 7 to Rocky Linux 8.7, but you won't go far wrong with either one. 

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