OpenWorld 2012 Oracle has taken its share of knocks for marketing a version of Linux that's package-for-package compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), but according to Oracle senior engineering veep Wim Coekaerts, Oracle Linux's reputation as a copycat is entirely undeserved.
"I often read things on Slashdot or blogs where folks think that we're proprietary and we just take the code and don't contribute back," Coekaerts said during an Oracle OpenWorld conference session in San Francisco on Tuesday. "It really hurts me personally, because we actually do a lot of really good stuff. All the work we do goes back to Linux. We're really in it to make Linux better and not just copy."
Coekaerts argued that although Red Hat markets a Linux distribution that's put together a specific way, it has no exclusive rights to the code for the various software packages that make up that distribution.
"Linus [Torvalds] maintains Linux," he said. "The distribution vendors do not own Linux. We certainly don't. Red Hat doesn't – though they sometimes try to make their customers believe that they own it. They don't, like we don't, like Suse doesn't. No one owns Linux."
Coekaerts said that although Oracle was perfectly capable of coming up with a brand-new Linux distribution of its own, it chose to model its offering on Red Hat's for strategic reasons.
"We have maintained strict compatibility with RHEL because that's easier for customers. It's not that we need Red Hat so that we can build a Linux distribution. Building the distribution by itself is actually technically very easy," Coekarts explained.
What wouldn't be so easy, he said, would be convincing current Red Hat customers to become Oracle Linux customers if they couldn't easily migrate their existing servers and their custom applications, many of which may have been written from the ground up to run on RHEL.
According to Coekarts, Oracle's offering is so compatible with Red Hat's that customers can actually download and install Oracle Linux patches on a RHEL server. Over time, once they have installed enough patches, their RHEL servers will have seamlessly transformed into Oracle Linux servers.
"Many of our customers do this," Coekaerts said. "They have RHEL, they stop paying for support, they just switch their support phone number to us, and over time they migrate over."
But why would Red Hat customers switch over to Larry & Company when the two offerings are functionally identical? Coekaerts said there are several reasons.
For one thing, he said, Oracle offers a single point of contact for support for the entire software stack. "When you're running Oracle on RHEL in VMware, you're calling three companies," Coekaerts said.
Oracle Linux can also help simplify the IT environment for customers who, for cost reasons, had been running a mix of RHEL and its free clone, CentOS. Unlike with RHEL, Oracle Linux customers only pay license fees for the machines for which they need support. They can run Oracle Linux on their development and testing machines for free.
Coekarts said there are technical advantages to Oracle Linux, as well. For example, Red Hat tends to maintain the same version of the Linux kernel for four or five years. When new features arrive in new versions of the kernel, Red Hat back-ports them to run in its older version, which Coekaerts said can cause stability problems.
By the time RHEL 6 shipped with a new version of the kernel, Red Hat had already back-ported some 700,000 lines of code to work with RHEL 5's outdated kernel. "Talk about forks!" Coekaerts said. "That's not mainline Linux, that's a totally different, unique tree."
Coekaerts also touted some unique technologies Oracle works into its own version of the Linux kernel, including its DTrace instrumentation technology and the forthcoming support for Containers in Linux – both features borrowed from Oracle's other server OS, Solaris.
In addition, he said customers have been happy with Ksplice, Oracle's technology that allows patches to be applied to running servers without rebooting, and that the database giant has also been working on improving virtualization, networking, storage, and security for forthcoming releases of Oracle Linux.
Despite all this, he said, many customers choose Oracle Linux simply because it is more cost-effective. According to Coekaerts, premium support for a four-socket server running RHEL 6 might cost $6,498, compared to $2,299 for a similar support offering for Oracle Linux running on the same hardware.
More than a few customers have been convinced. Coekaerts says there are now some 10,000 customers running Oracle Linux, most of whom were existing Oracle customers who migrated away from Red Hat for their OS support.
"Since our customer base has grown so rapidly, we're no longer the small player," Coekaerts added. "We're now the top two." ®