The CentOS project, a non-commercial Linux distribution that tracks Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), is changing to become only CentOS Stream, based on a development branch of RHEL and therefore less suitable for production workloads.
The implication may be that Red Hat has decided that the availability of CentOS undermines the commercial side of its business. "If you are using CentOS Linux 8 in a production environment, and are concerned that CentOS Stream will not meet your needs, we encourage you to contact Red Hat about options," said CentOS Community Manager Rich Bowen.
It is notable that today’s post by Bowen lacks much in the way of rationale for the change, other than that it “removes confusion around what ‘CentOS’ means in the Linux distribution ecosystem.” Bowen acknowledges that the change will mean “a major shift in collaboration among the CentOS Special Interest Groups (SIGs).”
In the past, CentOS has been a community build of the current RHEL source, providing a robust production distro for those willing to do without Red Hat support. When RHEL gets a fix, the project aims to have the same fix available for CentOS “within 72 hours” of its release, while new point releases of CentOS come “four to eight weeks after the release by upstream.” In other words, CentOS tracked RHEL.
CentOS Stream, by contrast, is a development preview of what is soon to come in RHEL, focused on the next minor release. Another distro, Fedora, is further ahead and more experimental.
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When CentOS Stream was introduced in September 2019 it was described by Red Hat as “a rolling preview” of future Red Hat Enterprise Linux kernels and features.” It is useful for developers testing applications for the next Red Hat release, and useful for Red Hat for feedback on anything not working as expected, but not ideal for production use.
“Nothing changes for current users of CentOS Linux and services,” said Red Hat CTO Chris Wright, at the time; but a little over a year later, everything has changed.
Wright now says that “we will shift our investments to CentOS Stream exclusively on December 31, 2021.” The company “remain committed” to CentOS Linux 7 until its end of maintenance in 2024, but not to CentOS Linux 8.
The relationship between the CentOS Project and Red Hat is complex. The official statement is that "Red Hat curates the trademarks for CentOS and is providing initial guidance and expertise required in establishing the formal board structure used to govern the CentOS Project." and that "Some members on the CentOS Project Governing Board work for Red Hat, Inc." Today's announcement does perhaps suggest that it is Red Hat rather than the community that is guiding the project's direction.
A FAQ on the shift to CentOS Stream states that the source code for RHEL will continue to be published as before. The change “only relates to the binaries the CentOS Project is building,” we are told.
CentOS 8, the current version, will continue to receive updates until the end of 2021. It was supposed to end-of-life in 2029. There will be no CentOS Linux 9, only CentOS Stream 9.
There is a migration option from CentOS Linux 8 to CentOS Stream, and users are assured that since the release is just ahead of RHEL, rather than behind it, “CentOS Stream will be getting fixes and features ahead of RHEL,” the FAQ said, resisting the idea that it is now a beta release of RHEL; though it is hard to shake off the idea that it fulfils some of that role.
Can the community continue to rebuild CentOS Linux from the released source code? “We will not be putting hardware, resources, or asking for volunteers to work towards that effort, nor will we allow the CentOS brand to be used for such a project,” the FAQ said, though adding that “the code is open source and we wouldn’t try to stop anyone from choosing to use it or build their own packages from the code.”
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There is scope, therefore, for a new community build of RHEL to appear - and a post by Gregory Kurtzer, the founder of CentOS, states that "I am considering creating another rebuild of RHEL and may even be able to hire some people for this effort." - head here and join the Slack group for more details. "I've already had some people ask me to create another CentOS that tracks RHEL perfectly again. haha," he says.
What does the community think? It's early days, though one user remarks that it is “fitting for the general theme of 2020 … Beta testing for RedHat? Sure, can do so, but then why not go straight to fedora?”
Comments on Bowen’s post are equally unenthusiastic. “I guess my argument "Use CentOS, not Ubuntu if you want most stable production" is out of the window now. Ubuntu it is then from now on,” says one. Another remarks, "Terrible move by IBM/RH - the community is what has driven the success of RHEL Enterprise." There is also a claim from another that "This is a breach of trust from the already published timeline of CentOS 8 where the EOL was May 2029."
Red Hat was profitable before its 2019 acquisition by IBM so the existence of CentOS to date has not been a barrier to commercial success. The news now may win some new customers, but at some cost in goodwill and a likely negative impact on the CentOS community. ®