Where Fedora fits in the new Red Hat/CentOS Stream Linux world

With CentOS Stream now "tracking ahead" of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, where exactly does that leave Fedora, Red Hat's community Linux distro, and long-time RHEL test release?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Red Hat, CentOS's Linux parent company, announced in early December it was "shifting focus from CentOS Linux, the rebuild of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), to CentOS Stream, which tracks just ahead of a current RHEL release." That move ticked off CentOS users and it also left many others wondering where, exactly, does Fedora, Red Hat's community Linux distribution and de facto beta, go from here?

Good question. 

When CentOS Stream was introduced, Chris Wright, Red Hat's CTO, said "developers … require earlier access to code, improved and more transparent collaboration with the broader partner community, and the ability to influence the direction of new RHEL versions. It is these opportunities that CentOS Stream is intended to address." 

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So, it's a RHEL beta, right?

No, Wright continued, CentOS Stream is stable enough for production. True, CentOS Stream is a "rolling preview" of what's next in RHEL, both in terms of kernels and features. But Facebook already runs millions of servers, supporting its vast global social network, with its own Linux operating system based on CentOS Stream.

But, Wright added, "CentOS Stream now sits between the Fedora Project's operating system innovation and RHEL's production stability."


OK, so let's leave aside for the moment whether CentOS Stream is a production rolling release or a RHEL beta. One good thing is that at long, long last CentOS and RHEL will be using the same Bugzilla. Even though they're almost identical, bugs reported on the CentOS system were not reported on RHEL and vice-versa. Generally speaking, users reported that CentOS bugs tended to be ignored. 

Where does Fedora fit into all this?

I asked Matthew Miller, who's Red Hat's Fedora Project Leader.

First, Miller wants you to know that he knows Red Hat has been taking it on the chin for its move. Miller said, "Big changes are always hard to communicate, and wow, I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that this ended up worse than most." Still, he noted, "CentOS Stream was announced a year or so ago and didn't draw very much attention. So, I think 'we actually want to focus all of the attention and energy on this new direction and can't split our efforts' is actually very understandable." That, of course, isn't how many people took it. 

But, Miller wants you to know that, contrary to rumor, Red Hat is not "canceling or pulling out of open source commitments in general, and from a Fedora perspective I just don't see that at all."

Fedora, just as it always has, will be the upstream for RHEL. "Fedora integrates thousands of "upstream" open-source projects into a unified distribution on a six-month release cadence, and every so often Red Hat takes that collection, forks it off, and produces RHEL." That will remain the same. 

But, Miller continued:

While obviously RHEL has been successful, when you do something only once every few years, it's hard to really get good at it: each time is like learning anew. And, once that fork from Fedora happens, RHEL development traditionally has all been inside the Red Hat firewall, with the results seen in a restricted-access RHEL alpha, an RHEL beta that few people actually look at, suddenly a public release of the point-0 version, and then secret development of each subsequent point release.

That's a problem and that's what CentOS Stream is meant to address. 

"CentOS Stream," Miller said, "is continuous development of RHEL after the fork from Fedora." This is where a lot of miscommunication is happening with terms like "rolling-release" and "unstable development branch" getting kicked around. What's actually happening, Miller stated, is "Everything that goes into CentOS Stream is actually approved for release to paying RHEL customers. It's just released in a … well, in a stream … rather than in a big dump every six months. Of course, there's some learning curve, but the intention is for this stream to be as stable as the released RHEL product because being able to make it so literally is the value of Stream to Red Hat."

So, what happens to Fedora? Miller said, much of what happens in:

Fedora-land just stays exactly as it has for the past decade. Fedora offers a lot of things that just aren't Red Hat's areas of attention for RHEL. For example, Red Hat's investment in the desktop is focused on enterprise needs, not so much on individual developers or students and other academic use cases. Fedora Workstation is meant for those situations. Likewise, RHEL for Edge is Red Hat's internet-of-things offering, and it's meant for enterprise use. Fedora IoT has some overlap in aspirations of working at scale, but we're also interested in home hacking and the educational space. 

If you're running Fedora Workstation or the Fedora KDE Plasma Spin or Fedora Xfce (or any of our other desktop offerings!), you can basically just ignore all of this drama. The same goes for Fedora CoreOS and Fedora IoT.

As for Fedora contributors and working on packaging or in other technical areas, Miller doesn't see any "real impact. Fedora has actually been using the Red Hat Bugzilla since the fedora.us project joined Red Hat. It's a little further away from RHEL and CentOS Stream, though, since there's not a major-version mapping."

But, what about Fedora and its role in RHEL? The areas, he mentions, after all, aren't mission-critical for Red Hat. Miller doesn't see Red Hat dropping Fedora or these areas.

That said, Miller sees two  major areas where the changes "definitely impacts Fedora, and a third one I'm hopeful about."

First, we have a new thing called "Fedora ELN.". I think it might officially be one of those acronyms that doesn't stand for anything, but think "'Enterprise Linux Next". This is a build of Fedora sources that is composed using build parameters emulating those used to make RHEL. It's not a different branch of our actual sources and build configuration files, but a continuous answer to "what if we started the next RHEL version from Fedora today?"

Miller explained:

This is a big deal for RHEL because it means that doing that fork isn't a rare, always-a-new-experience occasion. It's something the RHEL team can develop actual ongoing expertise in. I think it might be tempting to look at Fedora ELN as 'RHEL beta,' but I don't think that's quite the right lens — everything still follows Fedora's general direction and policies as set by the Fedora community except the specific build choices. At some point next year, I expect CentOS Stream 9 to fork from Fedora, cloning our sources and that build configuration. I'm not actually sure what the specific plans are for an RHEL 9 Beta, but if there is one, it'll be developed from that early CentOS Stream 9. So, instead of the opaque process where the sources are pulled inside RH and released again later, there will be a clear transparent flow from Fedora Rawhide to CentOS Stream to Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

"None of this changes Fedora to be more (or less) of an RHEL Beta," said Miller. "It's always a place where you can see Red Hat working on features that are planned for future major RHEL releases. It also contains a lot of things that aren't going into RHEL. The recent switch where Fedora desktop offerings use the Btrfs filesystem is a recent example: Red Hat has told me very clearly that they're committed to their choice of XFS and Ext4 filesystems."

The second area is in community messaging. From where Miller sits, "Six years ago when CentOS was brought into the company, this was kind of a mess. Red Hat was very eager to build a contributor community around the newly-joined CentOS project, and in that eagerness, there was often confusion of whether something should be done in Fedora or in the new hotness." 

The results weren't pretty. "This really hurt some of Fedora's Cloud efforts," Miller confessed, "and we ended up with a very detrimental split in Project Atomic where the nominal development was in Fedora Atomic but 95% of actual users were following CentOS Atomic. We had a number of talks describing how the relationship between Fedora, CentOS, and RHEL was supposed to work that literally invoked M.C. Escher's impossible geometry. That should never have to happen!"

Now, Miller thinks once the passion has died down we'll have a much clearer picture of the whole Red Hat family landscape. Sure, he knows "there's been a lot of 'Red Hat killed CentOS," but I think it's very clearly: Red Hat and the CentOS Board have realigned CentOS so it's a crucial part of the bigger picture of the RHEL ecosystem, and it's going to get more involvement and investment from Red Hat. And the awesome thing from a Fedora point of view is that this isn't a zero-sum game: it also means greater involvement and investment in Fedora as part of the same realignment."

Finally, Miller hopes that this move will revitalize the semi-dominant Fedora Server Edition. The Fedora Server distro launched about when CentOS came into Red Hat. The result was a lot of confusion and the Fedora Server getting neglected. 

Now, Miller thinks the changes will give the Fedora community "an opportunity to do this right, with active participation from CentOS special interest groups in Fedora Server, and Fedora Server taking more direct interest in CentOS Stream and ultimately RHEL as a downstream stakeholder. This is still in its early stages, of course, but I'd love to see an easy path where a Fedora Server user can decide to 'flow' to the next version of CentOS Stream or even to RHEL for cases where it's appropriate."

Put it all together and what does it mean? It means Fedora's not going anywhere. The CentOS move will not, as some have said, put Fedora next on the chopping block. Fedora will continue to be the RHEL's beta and to explore Linux's cutting edge just as it always has.

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