Two years ago, Red Hat killed CentOS, a widely-used free version of their Enterprise Linux distribution.
The community of CentOS users—myself included—were labeled as ‘freeloaders’, using the work of the almighty Red Hat corporation, without contributing anything back. Don’t mind all the open source developers, Linux kernel contributors, and software devs who used CentOS for testing and building their software. Also ignore the fact that Red Hat builds their product on top of Linux, which they didn’t build and don’t own.
I almost wrote off Red Hat back then. It felt like someone stuck a knife in my back.
This past week, Red Hat took that knife and twisted it hard, when they published this blog post. Let there be no mistake: this was meant to destroy the distributions the community built to replace what Red Hat took away.
There were only two things that kept me around after Red Hat betrayed us the first time: First, instead of attacking the community of open source users, many Red Hatters reached out and asked, “How can we do better?” It didn’t heal the wound, but it meant something, knowing someone at Red Hat would at least listen.
Second—and more importantly—Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux stepped in. They prevented a mass-exodus from the Red Hat ecosystem, giving developers like me a stable target for my open source work. But Rocky and Alma relied on Red Hat sharing their source code.
Here’s how it used to work:
- Red Hat would grab a copy of Linux
- They would add magic sauce that makes it Red Hat Enterprise Linux
- They would release a new version
- They would update a source code repository with all the data required to build it from scratch
That’s kinda the status quo because in open source, the source… is open! And it doesn’t matter if someone who uses your source benefits from it too… that’s kind of what it’s all about! We all benefit from sharing our work, and in this case, the GPL license Linux uses legally requires us to share it!
Without that sharing, there would be no Debian, Arch, Mint, Ubuntu, PopOS, Fedora… or any of the other hundreds of Linux distros that build on each other and prop up the community.
But Red Hat decided to put the source code behind a paywall. Now, this is legal. Technically, the GPL allows it. But it’s generally rude and annoying to do that when the code you’re locking down is largely based on other people’s open source code.
But… it’s within their rights, so I won’t argue that point. What I will argue is the current subscription agreement, which might not be legal. Red Hat currently says they can cancel any user’s account if they download the source code and redistribute it.
Let’s say someone downloads the source through a Red Hat subscription, and uses that to build a new version of Rocky Linux. If Red Hat retailiated by cancelling that subscription, I’d definitely tune into that court case.
I don’t know if the community could front the money to take on IBM’s powerful laywers—maybe that’s what Red Hat’s banking on. But there’s another player in this game who might, and that’s Oracle. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Oracle were the ones who knocked Red Hat down a peg for being so uppity with their abuse of their community!
But let me be clear: everything I’ve seen points to Red Hat trying to choke out downstream distros like Rocky, Alma, and Oracle Linux. I think their hope is users of those distros would get scared and sign up for a Red Hat subscription. They need this to happen to lock in some short-term profits to please their IBM overlords. That’s my cynical take on it.
What Red Hat’s doing is skirting right on the edge of legality the terms of Linux’s GPL License. If you wanna dig into that, read this post from the Software Freedom Conservancy.
Red Hat used to be the company of rebels. They used to have edgy ads quoting Gandhi and positioning Red Hat as the plucky underdog, using open source to upend the old proprietary software companies.
It’s funny they used to be so devoted to that Gandhi quote in particular. In one sense, Red Hat kinda won, they’re the default choice for running Linux in big companies.
The irony is that Cory Doctorow recently wrote this about a different company, but I think it applies here:
HERE IS HOW platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
What a juxtoposition!
They built up so much goodwill in the open source community through the years and used to be known as the ‘open source company.’
But they’re throwing away that goodwill—at least as far as Linux is concerned—all in the name of profit.
We’re all being told to go sign up for a Red Hat Developer Account so we can snag our 16 licenses[^1] of Red Hat Enterprise Linux for testing.
Thanks, I guess I’ll drop doing something actually productive and spend a week retooling my test infrastructure and automation to work with Red Hat licensing.
You know who doesn’t require me to do that?
Debian. Ubuntu. FreeBSD. Not even Rocky Linux!
And please tell your employees to stop patronizing me, saying I should just use CentOS Stream. There’s a reason Rocky and Alma linux have been downloaded millions of times. Stream is not a substitute for CentOS.
So I’ve dropped support for Enterprise Linux on all my work, effective last Friday.
And people are asking me about Ansible. That’s the Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform (by IBM), by the way.
I don’t think Ansible’s gonna try locking down access, but the fact I have to spend even a second considering that possibility is insane!
Who wants to build around an ecosystem where the open source users are called freeloaders and where massive disruptions are implemented in the middle of a release cycle, two times in a row, with no warning?
I don’t see this helping Red Hat in any way in the long term.
In the end, this is just sad:
- It’s sad for users like me who used CentOS and developed tools on it that on-ramped folks into Red Hat’s ecosystem.
- It’s sad for Red Hat, which used to fight for open source, but now puts up barriers around their own source code.
- It’s sad for everyone still in their ecosystem, because they’re now forced to deal with Red Hat’s licensing shenanigans and the loss of so many in the open source community.
But as for me? I’m done with Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
I’ll keep up support for Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux on a best-effort basis, but I have no confidence I’ll be able to support Enterprise Linux moving forward.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…
[^1] Red Hat seemed to be upping the limit to 240 sockets per developer, but now it seems that was just a bug.