As focus shifts to OpenStack, Red Hat embraces (co-opts) Linux clone; The week in cloud

red hat headquarters

Put this one in the strange bedfellows department: Red Hat, the company known for its supported enterprise Linux,  is now working with its chief clone, CentOS. Since CentOS is seen as a free option to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) in many businesses and Red Hat threatened legal action against CentOS in the past, last week’s news raised some eyebrows.

Since I tend to see things through the cloud lens, this seems to me that Red Hat has bigger fish to fry than server operating systems. It is trying very hard to be seen as a leader in the OpenStack community and in Platform as a Service (PaaS) with its OpenShift effort. So maybe plain ol’ Linux is just table stakes now

And that context makes the CentOS news even more interesting. A Wired post headlined Hell freezes over in Linux Land reminded everyone of Red Hat’s litigious response when new-borne CentOS made reference to Red Hat on its website. But, Wired’s Klint Finley wrote, this latest move means that CentOS can find and fix bugs more publicly “without fear of legal reprisals from Red Hat” or the “Prominent North American Enterprise Linux Vendor,”  as CentOS took to calling Red Hat after the legal spat.

So something has changed.

Red Hat logoThe back story is that Red Hat is aware that CentOS is a viable alternative to RHEL for many accounts which do not see value in paying for Red Hat support. Indeed, it took me a long time to grok why corporate users stick with RHEL — since the only thing RHEL offers that CentOS doesn’t is certification of various hardware and software configurations and proof that the user is, in fact, supported by a big vendor.  For a subset of big companies, the ability to show stakeholders that the full technology stack is supported and vetted by its vendors is critical — even if the support itself is meh.

Matt Asay, VP of business development MongoDB and former COO at Ubuntu, a Red Hat competitor, hit the nail on the head on his post over at Read Write.

” … CentOS is by far the most popular non-paid Linux distribution for enterprise use. While Red Hat lists several hundred case studies of enterprises like Goldman Sachs that depend upon RHEL for mission-critical deployments, there are many others that want the safety of running a close approximate of the RHEL standard but don’t want to pay RHEL prices.

Or as Kenn White, principal scientist at Social and Scientific Systems, puts it: “Let’s be honest—the main driver of CentOS adoption is avoiding $350/box/yr [for a] Red Hat license.”

Red Hat’s problem is that while big banks, etc., are hugely risk averse, a growing number of other companies are not. And for those companies CentOS is a very attractive option. By embracing, or seeming to embrace CentOS, Red Hat is expanding its ecosystem and perhaps containing damage.

As Redmonk Analyst Stephen O’Grady said in the Red Hat press release:

“…this move by Red Hat represents the logical embrace of an adjacent ecosystem. Bringing the CentOS and Red Hat communities closer together should be a win for both parties.”

Another wrinkle is that many big enterprise Red Hat accounts are also Oracle database accounts. Never one to let a competitive threat pass, Oracle has been pushing those shops to adopt Oracle “Unbreakable” Linux (also a Red Hat clone) at very favorable terms. There is a price list, but from what I can tell, Oracle Linux support is de facto free to these companies.  While nobody’s market share numbers show Oracle Linux gaining traction, I do hear anecdotally about some wins for Oracle. Perhaps more to the point, any big Oracle shop worth its salt will use Oracle’s offer to force support pricing concessions from Red Hat. Much like enterprise shops use Google Apps to negotiate better enterprise deals on Microsoft Office.

Fedora, the test bed for proposed new features, “will continue to serve as the upstream project on which future Red Hat Enterprise Linux releases are based,” Red Hat said. In other words, Fedora is the trail blazer, testing out cutting edge changes before they roll out in RHEL and CentOS is the fast follower, taking the new and cool stuff from RHEL and making it broadly available even to those not paying Red Hat support. Or at least that’s how I read it.

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below.

Ta-DA! The Structure Show

Jason Hoffman, founder and former CTO of Joyent and now digital strategy poohbah at Ericsson, is never shy about his opinions. Hear why he thinks Amazon will continue to crush it, Google has a shot and OpenStack is an “interesting backwater” as he handicaps the major cloud players.

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