Interview Fedora, the community Linux distro used by Red Hat for early implementation of new technology, is not just for experimentation, project leader Matthew Miller tells us.
Miller is "ultimately accountable for everything that happens within Fedora and in particular is responsible for maintaining Red Hat's relationship with Fedora and vice versa," though he adds: "Although Red Hat sponsors it, Red Hat doesn't own it in a meaningful way. The community makes decisions about what's going to happen."
It is well known that Fedora is the first place new Linux technology lands in the Red Hat family of Linux distributions. What is in Fedora, presuming it proves its worth, is likely to end up in CentOS Stream and then in Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the company's commercial operating system. Fedora is therefore meant to be fast-moving, but what does that mean in terms of when it makes sense to use it? For example, is it fine for a personal laptop but not sensible for a production server?
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"I'm glad that we moved beyond the 'it's bleeding edge' narrative," Miller says. "It's great for your laptop because we put a lot of work into that. I think it can be great for other use cases, so we have a Fedora Server edition and we have a Fedora CoreOS for IoT and other things."
Miller prefers to say leading edge. "Some people who run Fedora Server in production like to have the latest kernel for hardware enablement and for features that they use... I would say about 20-30 per cent of Fedora systems are being used in a non-desktop context."
Is Fedora as stable as other distributions? "Stability is a loaded word," says Miller. "Is this gonna crash on me? In that sense, Fedora Server is very stable. Having the latest software often means that bugs and security are fixed more quickly than they are in slower moving distributions. On the other hand, the long-term distributions work by basically not making changes. Fedora doesn't follow that, your packages will get updated. We try to make it so that major breaking changes happen on releases rather than just as updates. But sometimes, if there is a security problem, we will put out a newer version of something. So for that kind of stable, it is much less so."
Fedora CoreOS, as a container operating system, is a possible use case since containers are transient and get replaced rather than updated. CoreOS "doesn't actually follow the main release cycle because they have updates every two weeks," says Miller, though the underlying distribution only changes once a year – a "rolling release on top of a release-based main distribution."
Is the idea that Fedora is mainly for experimentation misplaced then? "Red Hat likes to sell RHEL for production use cases, but it is also really important that people use Fedora in these real cases as well... If [Fedora] is only used in personal productivity use cases, and then Red Hat is trying to build a Kubernetes product that builds on RHEL on top of it, that doesn't work for Red Hat," says Miller.
If you're a bank and deploying a giant Kubernetes thing, if you want to do that on Fedora, you're going to have to employ a lot of people to make sure everything is stable and secure. It's going to be a lot easier for you to use RHEL
The fact that Red Hat would like to see some Fedora in production is not in itself a compelling argument for users. It is fair to say that this is part of the Fedora strategy. "If you're a bank and deploying a giant Kubernetes thing, if you want to do that on Fedora, you're going to have to employ a lot of people to make sure everything is stable and secure. It's going to be a lot easier for you to use RHEL... but if you're a company which cares about things at the operating system level and you've got the people to work on those kind of things, working with Fedora is a great way to have real direct influence, because you can participate in the community." Fedora is also free, which is another factor.
Fedora 34 beta has just been released and we looked at what's new here. GNOME 40 is a big part of it, and Miller tells us: "This is the first time since GNOME 3.0 came out that there's a real rethinking of the basic desktop experience, it's very snappy and polished, some other distributions have decided to wait to roll that out, we've decided to go ahead with it, because we like to bring change to people quickly."
Another thing he is keen to highlight is Btrfs, an advanced file system. "In the last release we enabled that, and in this release we turn on transparent compression... giving you more disk space and probably making your SSDs last longer because of fewer writes."
The work with Toolbox is also important. Toolbox comes from the Fedora Silverblue world where the operating system is immutable and applications are installed as isolated packages. Most applications come as Flatpaks but this does not work for development, where users need full control over the operating system. Toolbox solves this by letting developers work in a container. "The new thing is you can now use RHEL as an operating system inside the toolbox," says Miller. Previously this was a Fedora image, not so good if RHEL is the target.
Miller could not give us any hard data on Fedora usage. "We don't have any user data for a number of reasons, privacy being a key one," he says. "We do have two things we count. One is the number of systems that hit our mirrors looking for updates every day... we're seeing a lot of growth across the board." ®