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Rx for Linux: Part 3 - Licensing clarity

Linux is confused: it's free, but IBM wants you to pay Red Hat $1,499 per yearto run it on even a small Power5 machine.

One of the problems Joe Junior IT manager faces when contemplating Linux is that there's no obvious clarity in OS and licensing policy. Linux is free, but costs $799 per year per machine. As in, huh?

In comparision Microsoft's position is clear: everything has a price, on which some people get a small break under some circumstances. Sun's position is clear: buy the media kit for $49.95 or download and install Solaris at the cost of a free registration. BSD's positions are clear - the product is free, but you can buy media packs if you want to. Apple's position is clear: Darwin is free, the MacOS X integrated shell costs you a combined media and licensing fee to install.

Linux is confused: it's free, but IBM wants you to pay Red Hat $1,499 per year to run it on even a small Power5 machine. Here's part of their description of the deal they offer:

 

For the convenience of clients, IBM provides the ability to order a full retail distribution of RHEL AS 3 in conjunction with any eServer p5, OpenPower or pSeries system purchase or hardware processor upgrade. IBM will ship the RHEL 3 media to the client, pursuant to a license agreement between Red Hat and the client. Clients have the option of ordering RHEL 3 directly from Red Hat, Inc. or their distributors. ...

...

The Red Hat license agreement defines the RHEL AS 3 charge unit as per install, meaning that a license is required for each server or LPAR on which RHEL AS 3 is installed. In the case of systems configured with LPARs, additional RHEL AS 3 licenses must be ordered for each LPAR running RHEL AS 3. The Red Hat license agreement is available at http://www.redhat.com/licenses/rhel_us_3.html.

Red Hat's site is fairly clear about the proposition that you're really buying their support rather than a Linux license but, for Joe Junior, that's a distinction without a difference. What Joe Junior sees is that IBM will ship him the Linux media "pursuant to a license agreement between Red Hat and the client."

What Red Hat and IBM (and to a lesser extent Novel) have done here is embed an obvious lie - that they're selling support with free licenses instead of licenses with some support - right at the pivotable point in the tire kicker's Linux decision process. We don't know what the consequences have been, but my guess is that they've been two fold: turning some people off Linux, and supporting Linux sales to people who are so used to Microsoft's way of doing things that this looks perfectly natural - and in whose hands Linux does not generally prosper.

Red Hat could fix this, of course, by breaking itself up into a GPL developer on one side and a multi-distribution contractual Linux support organization on the other, but I don't see their management doing that. What seems more likely, instead, is that they won't change until forced to - perhaps when, right after the SCO mess gets settled, someone publically installs Red Hat's enterprise Linux products on a few hundred unlicensed production servers, invites Red Hat to sue them, and then launches a class action in favor of all Red Hat licensees alleging that the use of licenses in place of contracts amounts to an inappropriate means of coercing support sales

Until the world changes, however, Red Hat will continue to be the best free product you can get for only $799 - and Joe Junior will continue to shy away.


Paul Murphy's Linux Rx-- see the full series:

  • Part 1: Measurements and markets
  • Part 2: SCO, patents and money
  • Part 3: Licensing clarity
  • Part 4: Community support
  • Part 5: Executive support