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Criticism continued this week over Red Hat’s decision to alter the way it makes Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) available to developers and users, who believe the changes could make it more expensive.

Late last month, Red Hat doubled down on its commitment to CentOS Stream as a way to improve collaboration with the open source community and hasten delivery of new innovations to RHEL. That stronger commitment included making the CentOS Stream the “sole repository for public RHEL-related source code releases,” although the company emphasized that it will continue to make the source code available through its customer portal. Red Hat also said it will increase its financial investment in CentOS.

This move was met with criticism from some corners of the industry since CentOS Stream represents an early version of features coming to the more stable RHEL operating system rather than a downstream, supported version of RHEL that can be used for free. Now RHEL source code will only be available to Red Hat customers, who won’t be permitted to republish it.

“CentOS was supported previously, and this was costing Red Hat money, obviously,” said Paul Nashawaty, an analyst at TechTarget’s Enterprise Strategy Group. “There are alternatives to CentOS — Fedora, Rocky Linux — that can be used for true open source [Linux].”

Some industry watchers also argued that last month’s changes could make it more difficult for alternatives such as Rocky Linux that repackage RHEL, prompting SUSE to step in this week with a pledge to fork RHEL based on publicly available code “and will develop and maintain a RHEL-compatible distribution available to all without restrictions.”

Future of free OSS in question

Oracle also took an opportunity to criticize Red Hat’s changed approach to RHEL source code in a blog post, calling on the industry to “keep Linux open and free” and suggesting — possibly half-facetiously – that Red Hat parent company IBM become a downstream consumer of Oracle Linux instead.

While it’s unclear whether most RHEL users will be affected by these changes, some industry watchers suspect the move portends Red Hat more aggressively pushing RHEL distributions away from the traditional, free open source business model and toward a paying model.

“The problem for RHEL-based [distributions] is going to be really bad,” said Chris Riley, senior manager of developer relations at marketing tech firm HubSpot in Cambridge, Mass. “For me the most interesting part of this open source software ratcheting is you see several businesses that were OSS first, and now they are finding ways to push users to paying customers.

“I’ve been skeptical of the OSS business model. And in this macroeconomic environment, all levers to drive revenue are being explored,” he said.

Talk about Red Hat gravitating to a paid model for RHEL began two years ago when the company moved CentOS to a stream model that would be used for testing and integration for upcoming versions of RHEL. The company also discontinued updates to CentOS 7 and 8 in December 2021.

“Red Hat thought this change would result in free CentOS users becoming ‘paid RHEL’ users instead,” said Kevin Fleming, former principal program manager on the RHEL Program Management team. “That hasn’t worked with any company I’m aware of, and apparently it has not worked for Red Hat either. Making this change to inconvenience the repackagers seems like a result of that failure.”

Red Hat responds to criticism

In response to the swirl of criticism, Red Hat officials said they foresee no added costs or inconveniences to developers and users with this change. The licensing terms and conditions for RHEL remain the same, and the company is making no concerted effort to move to a paid model or narrow the ways developers can gain access to RHEL’s source code. In fact, the changes are designed to encourage “better behavior” among repackagers that are merely taking RHEL distributions, adding no value and reselling it to a variety of different markets, according to Red Hat officials.

“Simply repackaging without adding any value in the open source world is widely seen as bad behavior,” said Gunnar Hellekson, vice president and general manager for RHEL. “We made a decision that tries to balance discouraging bad behavior while still trying to encourage good behavior. Good behavior to us looks like working through the CentOS steam.”

Repackaging without adding any value in the open source world is widely seen as bad behavior. We made a decision that tries to balance discouraging bad behavior while trying to encourage good behavior. Good behavior to us is working through the CentOS steam.
Gunnar HelleksonVice president, general manager, Red Hat Enterprise Linux

Hellekson added Red Hat isn’t trying to discourage repackagers but convince them to use the source code sent to them in CentOS Stream. He feels they the company isn’t asking them to do anything differently than Red Hat itself does. By using CentOS Stream, repackagers can more easily add value to their distributions and better differentiate their versions compared to competitors in their respective markets, he said.

In a blog this week, Red Hat’s Mike McGrath, vice president of core platforms engineering, underscored Hellekson’s point about amending bad behavior. He noted the hard work thousands of Red Hat employees put into coding in new features, fixing bugs, integrating packages and capabilities many users need. McGrath pointed to the time-consuming effort involved in backporting patches to code up to 10 years old while supporting multiple release streams.

“I feel that much of the anger from our recent decision around the downstream sources comes from either those who do not want to pay for the time, effort and resources going into RHEL or those who want to repackage it for their own profit,” McGrath wrote. “This demand for RHEL code is disingenuous.”

Support for Red Hat’s move

Some analysts back McGrath’s point about the efforts Red Hat have made to distinguish its offering from competitors and the company’s interest in recouping its financial investments.

“With this move they are only doing what others have done,” said Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates, LLC. “A lot of the original work going into [RHEL], they put out into the open source community. They are saying, ‘Hey, we have spent a lot of time and money putting this stuff together. We need to generate more revenues from this’.”

Some analysts say the switch makes sense.

“I don’t see anything wrong with being CentOS being an upstream distro of RHEL rather than organizations not paying for support for enterprise level Linux and using CentOS as a way around the licensing costs,” Nashawaty said. “The pushback most likely will not make Red Hat change course; it is already in motion and has been for a while.”

As Editor At Large with TechTarget’s News Group, Ed Scannell is responsible for writing and reporting breaking news, news analysis and features focused on technology issues and trends affecting corporate IT professionals.

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

Digital Creations is an IT company providing solutions for businesses to accomplish their goals currently and in the future.

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