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Red Hat’s new model

by Richard Hillesley

A feature of free and open source software is that anyone can make a copy of the software, rebrand it, market it and sell it to the world…

The centOS community used this facility to build a successful clone of red hat enterprise Linux. Red Hat has now taken CentOS under its wing.

Traditionally software companies have relied upon the ‘unique’ qualities of their software as the selling point, but selling free software is a different proposition. Most, but not all, of the distributions that Distrowatch currently lists began life as copies or derivatives of one or other of the generic Linux distributions – Red Hat, Slackware or Debian – each of which owed some kind of a debt to Linux pre-history in the shape of SLS or Owen le Blanc’s MCC Interim Linux, which is often claimed to be the first installable Linux distribution.

The primary role of a commercial server-based GNU/Linux distribution is not the sale of the software but of follow-up services – subscription, consultancy, installation, training, support, upgrades and maintenance. Advances to free software may come from any number of sources, but for a distribution to succeed it has to have something that differentiates it from the others, an extra layer of polish or a loyal following, and a reputation for providing good service.

A GNU/Linux distribution is a collaborative effort that may include the work of thousands of individual and corporate contributors. To make a success of the follow-up services that sustain an open source software company, the package of software it provides has to be of sufficient quality to justify purchase of subscriptions and services in the first place.

Red Hat owns the brand and the quality assurance that goes with the Red Hat trademark, but does not ‘own’ the software it sells. For this reason, CentOS and Oracle have been able to distribute rebranded copies of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which provide ‘complete upstream compatibility’ with Red Hat’s product without fear of legal approbation. Red Hat is not selling software, but quality assurance, secure upgrades, training and support, and licensing of third-party software, a model that was pioneered by Cygnus Solutions and Michael Tiemann, who is now vice president of open source affairs at Red Hat.

The pay-off for Red Hat is that the cumulative R&D value of the packages that comprise a Red Hat Linux distribution stretches into billions of dollars, and is the work of a multitude of private individuals, developer communities, corporate interests and other GNU/Linux distributions. What differentiates Red Hat from its competitors is the distinctive way it is put together, and the quality of the service it provides for its customers.

The pay-off for the end user is that the barriers to entry are low. If a GNU/Linux distribution lets you down, you can switch to another version of Linux and hope for some equivalence, so it is incumbent on a commercial GNU/Linux distribution to be at least a match for its competitors, honest and true to its developer communities, and on the ball with the services it provides.

CentOS has been adopted as an alternative to RHEL by a large community of organisations and companies who have the in-house expertise to support a Linux server installation and no requirement for the quality assurance and support provided by Red Hat. CentOS rivals Debian as the most popular server installation of Linux. For this reason, Red Hat’s recent decision to acquire CentOS makes a lot of sense.

Red Hat gains a user base that is already effectively part of its ecosystem, who may be seen as potential clients for Red Hat services into the future, and access to an experienced user community with direct experience of a RHEL clone in the field. Effectively, Red Hat will be providing a ‘free’ version of its enterprise operating system, albeit one that lags some way behind RHEL, in return for feedback from the community. A secondary benefit is that it neutralises the possibility of the purchase of CentOS, and its wider ecosystem, by a competitor.

Red Hat has been a lucky company with a knack of being in the right place at the right time, epitomised by its transition through a successful IPO from being the foremost community-based Linux of the Nineties to the most successful provider of open source server systems to the corporate world during the last decade. Red Hat was able to capitalise on a willing corporate market at a time when Linux was becoming the logical choice for back room servers, but it was able to do this through the good relations it maintained with its user and developer communities.

Some people have seen CentOS as a threat to the Fedora community, but Fedora has a distinctive and unambiguous role in Red Hat’s ecosystem. Fedora’s purpose is to be on the bleeding edge of free software distributions, prototyping ideas and implementations that may or may not be adopted in future editions of Red Hat’s commercial distributions. RHEL is developed from a snapshot of Fedora.

Equally, some have seen Red Hat’s purchase of CentOS as signalling a death knell for CentOS, but this would not serve Red Hat’s purpose well. CentOS is not a competitor for Fedora, and remains a clone of RHEL, differentiated only by its branding. The appeal of CentOS is that it provides Red Hat with a ready-made pool of experienced users of Red Hat software, and for Red Hat’s purposes into the future, the more users it has the better its model works, and the success of CentOS is to be maintained and promoted.

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    • jgmiller

      Richard Hillesley wrote,

      “some have seen Red Hat’s purchase of CentOS”

      How could it have been a purchase, when at the Red Hat Community blog at

      Red Hat employee Karsten Wade makes it abundantly clear that

      “CentOS is a community project not a legal entity, so there is nothing to purchase.”

      Reading further there, perhaps the primary reason for Red Hat to embrace CentOS is Openstack.

      “Another is that code in projects such as OpenStack is evolving without the benefit of spending a lot of cycles in Fedora, so our projects aren’t getting the community interaction and testing that the Linux base platform gets.”

      So the commercial reason (and commercial reasons are why corporations are motivated to do anything) appears to be all about getting a low cost “platform” to test out OpenStack and other Red Hat projects which are business server oriented and thus more relevant to CentOS users, rather than having relevance to Fedora’s predominantly desktop/laptop oriented user base.

    • Cory Hilliard

      I think the use of GNU when referring to Linux also needs to be stopped. GNU is a project that is owned by Richard Stallman. He himself says that Linux is not part of GNU and Linux doesn’t have the same direction or views as GNU does. Linux is built by Linus Torvalds with its own goals and direction. If you were a part of GNU then yes, making the distinction that it is GNU/Linux is important, because you aren’t using GNU/Hurd, and therefore need to make sure people know that the GNU/Linux operating systems weren’t free in the same way that RMS wants them to be. So Linux is Linux (the OS) and GNU/Linux is something that Richard is using because Hurd isn’t as good as Linux (the Kernel).

    • Jeffrey Tees

      Referring to Linux as GNU/Linux gives recognition to the fact that the Linux OS is built up of Linux (the kernel) and a lot of the GNU Projects tools.

      The ‘Linux’ OS is not part of GNU, but contains tools developed as part of the GNU Project. I don’t think you need to refer to the GNU OS (with the Hurd kernel) as GNU/Hurd as the Hurd is part of the GNU project, not a combination of two projects.

      Richard Stallman objects to the pragmatic direction the Linux Kernel takes as regards allowing non-free software and the kernel in the matter of proprietary drivers for video/wireless cards etc. The Kernel and most of the other tools make up the Linux system share the same software licence (the GPL), only additional tools such as Apache, Tmux, some office packages have different licences.

      The Hurd has been slower to be developed than the Linux Kernel, but that does not mean that it isn’t as good. When it is more mature it may well be more efficent than Linux.

      Problem is, ‘Linux’ has little enough brand recognition in the public eye, GNU/Linux has next to none. It may be more realistic to introduce the concept that linux is part of android, and not that weird or esoteric, then explain further that the ‘linux’ OS is actually two projects GNU and Linux.

      Anyway, get it from the horses mouth.

    • mike

      I dare you say that in front of a computer science class. An OS is, by definition, a kernel (Linux) + user space programs (GNU). You can have a Linux-based OS without GNU (as Android) or a GNU-based OS without Linux (GNU/Hurd, GNU/kFreeBSD). Linus is free to dislike Stallman’s view, but he is technically wrong.

    • Cory Hilliard

      GNU is a project that is owned by Richard M. Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. Stallman himself says that Linux is not a part of his operating system he calls GNU. Linux is built by Linus Torvalds with its own goals and direction and doesn’t have the same goals or direction that GNU does.

      If you were a part of Free Software Foundation or standing in RMS’s shoes, then yes, making the distinction that GNU is using the Linux Kernel is important, because you aren’t using the full GNU operating system promoted by the Free Software Foundation, and their understanding of the word “free” has a specific meaning to them which is not necessarily shared by the rest of the Open Source world.

      So Linux (as in the OS) should be called Linux and GNU/Linux is something that RMS has to say when his OS isn’t using the GNU kernel he calls “Hurd”. Since Hurd isn’t as popular or even as good as the Linux kernel, GNU is better using the Linux kernel in most cases.

      RMS should be embarrassed and ashamed to suggest that we all say GNU/Linux when referring to Linux. Calling Linux, GNU/Linux, means he is compromising his passion and position on what free software means to him.

      I fully respect RMS for his passion and focus and goals, and what he has accomplished, but I think he has lost sight of what’s important to him because of the popularity of Linux. Envy is ugly and for this he has lost respect points.

      If RMS ever gets to see this, I hope he understands that the license he has created is a beautiful thing, but to demand that everyone stick GNU in front of anything that someone else forks isn’t freedom. It means you’ve compromised who you are because of envy.