Red Hat should lighten up

Opinion: Red Hat Enterprise Linux support contracts need to be more flexible.

When I learned that Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, which is a big release for Red Hat Ive been looking forward to for some time, was coming out on March 14, one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind was, "Great—whens CentOS 5 coming out?"

Even though Red Hat has always been very nice about providing us with entitlements to test its products, entitlements are a major pain to mess with. Sometimes our entitlements expire, and I have to head over to the Red Hat Network to unentitle some machines in order to entitle others. Frankly, from our perspective as a testing organization and as a group of people who often build up and tear down systems in different combinations, RHEL is actually more of a pain to work with than Windows, for which there were (until Vista, at least) volume license copies that we could use flexibly and without expiration.

Even better are free Linux distributions, which you can get in all sorts of forms and from all sorts of locations. Debian is my favorite example of deployment flexibility: I download a small NetInstall image (from which I boot a virtual or physical system), choose a network mirror thats close to me and pull down just the packages I need, in their up-to-date form.

Just because Debian is much more pleasant to deploy, however, doesnt mean that I get to ignore RHEL, which is probably the most important Linux distribution around, in terms of hardware and software certifications and in terms of its prominence among the enterprise infrastructures that our readers are running.

Fortunately, theres CentOS, an open-source project that takes the source RPMs that Red Hat diligently offers up for public download, strips out Red Hats trademark-encumbered artwork, and improves—significantly— on RHEL by returning to it the flexibility that free distributions such as Debian enjoy.

However, the big drawback to CentOS is that while CentOS, practically speaking, really is RHEL, CentOS isnt RHEL enough for Red Hat to support or furnish services for it. Whats more, running RHEL by some other name puts you in an unclear support situation with ISVs whove certified their products for RHEL—just ask Oracle, which in recent weeks has been expressing consternation over certification and its own RHEL rebrand.

Back when Red Hat first divided its free, support-optional Red Hat Linux product into the free, bleeding-edge and community-supported Fedora and the metered, stable and Red Hat-backed RHEL, it probably made good business sense to bid adieu to any customers unwilling to pay per system. If you wanted a Red Hat distribution with a long support term and a stable development arc, you had no other choice—whether or not you planned on consuming the support for which youre paying when you buy Red Hats free software.

However, now that RHEL may be had for free in the form of CentOS, does it really make sense for Red Hat to maintain its selfimposed separation from customers who want a support-optional way to run RHEL?

While itd certainly make life easier for me and for others with needs similar to mine if Red Hat let itself loosen up again, I contend that it would be Red Hat itself that would stand to benefit most from the move. For one thing, by allowing CentOS to stand between itself and a growing segment of its user community, Red Hat is missing out on important feedback, bug reporting and mindshare, which may sound fluffy, but its the stuff upon which Red Hats dominant status in the Linux world was built.

Also, Red Hat is allowing its brand to become watered down. As I mentioned above, theres currently uncertainty regarding the support status of rebranded versions of RHEL. However, as time goes on, and rebrands such as CentOS and Oracles Unbreakable Linux prove themselves to be truly compatible with RHEL, its hard to imagine ISVs turning down the dollars of companies running these clones. Speaking of turning down dollars, Red Hats decision to cede a growing portion of its market to CentOS means closing doors to services money from customers who want to run RHEL, but do so with more of the flexibility to which free software is heir.

To those who counter that Red Hat cant stay afloat without requiring all RHEL users to pay for support contracts, whether they want them or not, I say that if Red Hat support delivers real value, then Red Hat has nothing to worry about. If, however, Red Hats health truly relies on leveraging customers to buy something they dont actually need, then the Linux giant is destined for a fall.