Microsoft comes under regular fire for its apparent eagerness to end-of-life its products, making them more difficult and expensive to support, and hence forcing users to upgrade to the next version. But without fanfare Red Hat has quietly introduced its own approach to end-of-life, and compared to this, Microsoft's idea of an upgrade cycle looks pretty sedate. As of the release of Red Hat 8.0, the company is only guaranteeing errata maintenance for the 12 months following a product's release.
Linux release cycles are of course pretty fast, and Linux is either free or cheap, depending on whether or not you feel the need to add to your manual pile. However, if Linux is being used in a commercial environment then IT managers are not going to be particularly enthusiastic about even the possibility of having to upgrade to a new version every 12 months. Red Hat's current death list EOLs RH 7.1-8.0 at the end of this year, while 6.2 and 7.0 get theirs as of the end of March.
The Register can supply a real life example of how and why this could be a problem. Until a couple of weeks ago our site was running on Red Hat 6.2, installed around 15 months ago because, even though 7.x was then current, 6.2 was the maximum the techies at the host company were geared up to support. No doubt they moved up to 7.x at some point during the intervening period, but we stuck with what was working until we had reason to set up new hardware, and would have stuck longer if we hadn't had that reason. (We switched to Debian, since you ask. And because the techies are in love with it, since you ask that too.)
Back at Red Hat's errata pages it would seem to us there's a pretty big signpost as to why the company is doing this. "Red Hat will provide proactive errata maintenance for Red Hat Linux Advanced Server for a period of at least three years from the date of initial release," it says. Three years still isn't terrific by what we must now view as the excessively liberal standards of the Beast of Redmond, but it is more in the ballpark, and by a massive coincidence Advanced Server is the one you have to pay server software-style levels money for.
At the time of the Red Hat 8.0 rollout the company explained to us that it was trying to stay with the fairly fast upgrade cycles of Linux with its general products, while going slower with Advanced Server, allowing time for testing and porting of enterprise software. The differentiation between the EOL times suggest it wants to push Advanced Server to businesses and discourage them from trying to do things on the cheap. And an email from one of the company's sales managers which has been passed on to us reinforces this by talking of Advanced Server on one side, and "our consumer based products" on the other.
And do we detect just the glimmer of an Advanced Server sales push here?
"If you are currently running any of the above mentioned distributions of the Red Hat Linux operating system in a production environment you will want to make plans on what the next step for those servers will be. If these are servers that will require the latest patches and erratta notifications from the Red Hat Network then we should talk to discuss whether you will migrate to the Red Hat Advanced Server offering or to another of our consumer based products such as the upcoming Red Hat 8.1. There are several differences between these offerings that you should be aware of prior to making any migration plans. I would like to schedule an appointment with you at your convenience to discuss these differences and how they will effect your Linux Server environment over the next 12-18 months."
So if you're going to need patches, you're going to have to switch, and if you switch to the next "consumer" product, you're going to have to consider switching again next year. Or even in six months, given that they come more frequently than every year. Granted, upgrading a point release isn't necessarily a big deal, but sooner or later the upgrade will be a big deal, and the '12 month' policy doesn't have any apparent allowance for this.
Naturally, we accept that Linux distributors have to figure out how to make a living when the base product's free and the users are notably reluctant to pay. And if you've got an awful lot of versions coming out, then you inevitably will have to shorten the support tail or drown. But there's no such excuse as far as Advanced Server is concerned. People pay real money for this, it is pitched as a production, mission-critical server operating system, and no guarantee beyond three years is way too short. Five, people - at the very least, do what Microsoft does. ®