SUSE will fork Red Hat Enterprise Linux

First came AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux. Then Oracle. Now SUSE is coming after Red Hat for changing the rules on RHEL source code. What's next? Microsoft RHEL!?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Businesses care about compatibility, support, and stability, not about open-source licensing. But they also care about cost, 

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When Red Hat changed how users and companies access its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) source code, the North Carolina-based software company likely never expected the move to blow up the way it has. First, the RHEL clone distributors -- AlmaLinux OS Foundation and Rocky Enterprise Software Foundation (RESF) -- objected. Then, Oracle, which has its own RHEL clone, came after Red Hat. And now, SUSE, the European Linux powerhouse, is forking RHEL.

What's next? Microsoft RHEL!?

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In deciding it would fork RHEL, SUSE declared it would invest more than $10 million toward the development and maintenance of an RHEL-compatible distribution available to all without restrictions.

This all started when Red Hat's VP of core platforms, Mike McGrath, declared, "CentOS Stream will now be the sole repository for public RHEL-related source code releases. For Red Hat customers and partners, source code will remain available via the Red Hat Customer Portal." 

That may not sound like much to you, but those were fighting words to many open-source and Linux distributors. According to Linux's fundamental license, the GPLv2, no restrictions can be placed on distributing the source code to those who've received the binaries. In the view of many in the open-source community, that's exactly what Red Hat has done. 

Others see this as the latest step in the long dance between Red Hat's business licensing demands and open-source licensing. Red Hat has had conflicts with the RHEL clones since 2005, when Red Hat's trademarks were the issue of the day. Usually, these fights stayed confined to the RHEL and its immediate clone rivals. Not this time. 

Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen, SUSE CEO, said this:

"For decades, collaboration and shared success have been the building blocks of our open-source community. We have a responsibility to defend these values. This investment will preserve the flow of innovation for years to come and ensures that customers and community alike are not subjected to vendor lock-in and have genuine choice tomorrow as well as today."

What does that mean? While SUSE will continue to invest in and support its own Linux distributions, SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) and openSUSE, SUSE plans on creating its own RHEL-compatible clone. Once completed, this new distro will be contributed to an open-source foundation, which will provide ongoing free access to alternative source code.

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Dr. Thomas Di Giacomo, SUSE's chief technology and product officer, said, "We firmly believe this new RHEL-compatible Linux distribution, together with SUSE's portfolio, will help the community and customers navigate unprecedented advancements in enterprise Linux, cloud computing, containerization, edge, AI/ML, and other emerging technologies."

SUSE won't be going it alone. Rocky Linux, which already staked out its intention to keep building RHEL clones, is joining in too.  Gregory Kurtzer, CEO of CIQ and Rocky Linux's founder, said, "CIQ is bringing stability to our partners, customers, and community, by building a broad coalition of like-minded companies, organizations, and individuals. SUSE has embodied the core principles and spirit of open source; CIQ is thrilled to collaborate with SUSE on advancing an open enterprise Linux standard."

 "Red Hat," Kurtzer added, "has opened Pandora's Box. What the enterprise Linux community requires is standardization, stability, and consistency. For years, that was RHEL. Now, the door is open to alternatives. CIQ is committed to stability for our partners, customers, and community."

Gunnar Hellekson, Red Hat's RHEL vice-president and general manager, reminds SUSE and Rocky Linux that, "A fork of Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a testament to the fact that we're following the spirit of open source and that RHEL's source code remains freely available to any who want it. The world is rich with Linux distributions, and this is the open-source model working as intended to strengthen the community overall."

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So, what does this new SUSE/RHEL release really amount to? Van Leeuwen explained, "As an Enterprise Linux user, you can switch to SUSE while keeping your existing Linux." He added, "Our team is highly experienced in supporting mixed environments. Last year, we successfully introduced SUSE Liberty Linux for our customers who need CentOS and RHEL support. Furthermore, SUSE Manager has long been renowned for its ability to efficiently manage a wide range of Linux distributions."

While many Linux companies are happy to jump on Red Hat over its licensing misadventure, one big name is keeping quiet: Canonical, the creator of Ubuntu Linux and long-time Red Hat server and cloud rival, is staying above the fray. 

What will all this hubbub mean for Red Hat and its competitors' business? Good question. Businesses care about compatibility,  support, and stability, not about open-source licensing. But they also care about cost, which is why CentOS and its RHEL clone variants have persisted. 

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Matt Asay, who runs developer relations at MongoDB, observed," If you're looking for the vendors most likely to unseat Red Hat, look beyond Rocky or Alma, or SUSE. Look to those that are doing the most to make Linux easy and accessible for developers. That includes the cloud vendors, as well as companies like Oracle and Canonical (Ubuntu), all of which have made significant investments in delivering Linux as a cloud service."

Asay has a point. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure may be the companies that determine business Linux's winners and losers. After all, remember that Azure has far more Linux instances than it does Windows Server.

Maybe MS-RHEL isn't such a fantasy after all.

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