Red Hat's open source rot took root when IBM walked in
Big Blue's top brass either don't get it or don't care
Opinion What is Red Hat thinking?
It's not Red Hat's fault, I blame IBM for the company's recent Linux code licensing changes and all the misery it unleashed.
While I know about Red Hat as well as any outsider can, I'm not an insider. I should have taken co-founder Bob Young up on his Red Hat IPO stock offer in 1999 instead of sticking with the lucrative world of tech journalism. But while I think Red Hat has badly mishandled its change in how the company will release its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) source code, I don't blame Red Hat's management. No, I look above to Red Hat's C-officers at IBM. There is where I think the open source rot begins.
Let me start by saying I don't think Red Hat is violating the letter of Linux's GPLv2 license. The spirit is another matter. But there's nothing new about the tension between Red Hat's commercial interests and the open source licensing rules that led to its rivals.
Let's go over some history.
Ever since RHEL became popular – which, by the way, was not the slam dunk you may have thought it was – other groups started building RHEL clones. These included White Box Linux, Caos Tao Linux, Lineox, Scientific Linux, and the one you will all know if you're reading this article – CentOS.
Why? As White Box Linux explained back in 2004, its initial creation came out of self-interest. "We have several servers and over 50 workstations running Red Hat Linux and were left high and dry by their recent shift in business plan. Our choices were a difficult migration to another distribution or paying Red Hat an annual fee greater than the amortized value of our hardware. So we chose a third path, made possible by the power of Open Source... White Box Linux."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
CentOS, which eventually became the most organized of the RHEL clones, proved popular with web-hosting businesses and other companies that had in-house Linux expertise. It was still a non-profit then. So If you needed support or a faster release cycle in 2011, CentOS's developers told you to "purchase a subscription from the upstream vendor."
But while CentOS was urging people to use RHEL, then, as now, far more users were sticking with CentOS and its variants. Today, even though CentOS is no longer supported, the SimilarTech research company reports that over 10 times as many businesses are using CentOS over RHEL.
Red Hat was, and is, leaving a lot of money on the table. So the company tried to get some of it back. For example, in 2005, Red Hat went after CentOS for violating its trademarks. That's when CentOS dropped any mention of Red Hat and replaced it "with Prominent North American Enterprise Linux Vendor."
Then, in 2014, with the problem still festering as far as Red Hat was concerned, Red Hat acquired CentOS. But that didn't work out either. So Red Hat in 2020 closed the doors to CentOS and started CentOS Stream.
CentOS fans were ticked off. You know the immediate result. AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux, a new generation of RHEL clones, were born. And now, once more, Red Hat is trying to get more control of the issue.
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You'd think they'd know how this works out. Clone users scream, Red Hat's reputation takes a knock in open source circles, and the clones continue on their way. Indeed, Gunnar Hellekson, Red Hat's VP and general manager for RHEL, told me:
I want to reiterate that, despite the perception being pushed by some, Red Hat remains fully committed to honoring our open source license obligations and delivering, openly and transparently, the source code that we use to build ALL of our products. For RHEL, in particular, this code is available in multiple places, including CentOS Stream, which is an open window into how and what we use to build RHEL. We also deliver many RHEL sources through Red Hat Universal Base Image, which includes the dependencies and packages needed to build a containerized application that will run on RHEL but can also be distributed however and wherever the developer wants. These are just a few of the places that non-customers can access RHEL source code – we do expect all users of Red Hat subscription services to abide by the enterprise agreement, which, again, does not supersede the GPL but acts in parallel with it.
This sounds to me like Rocky Linux will be able to get away with its RHEL clone endeavor.
So why did Red Hat do this? As I said at the start, I don't think they did. Does Red Hat want you to pay for a RHEL subscription? You bet. Does it think that this PR fiasco will help? Nope. But does IBM understand? No, I don't think Big Blue's top brass gets it.
I see this as a bad trend for Red Hat. First, in 2021, instead of moving former Red Hat president and CEO Jim Whitehurst into IBM's top slot – which many of us had hoped for – they let him leave. Instead of IBM becoming more like Red Hat, the stage was set for Red Hat to become more like IBM.
More recently, IBM laid off just under 4 percent of Red Hat's staff. Those layoffs included some of Red Hat's best open source people. Why? Like so many other tech companies, IBM appears to be under the delusion that layoffs for no real reason except an unfounded fear of recession are helpful. Guess what? They're not.
So it is that IBM wants to squeeze more profits out of Red Hat by making it more like IBM, cutting costs, and increasing RHEL licensing volume. It won't work. This move will hurt Red Hat's culture and IBM's bottom line.
I had hoped for better from IBM's acquisition of Red Hat. Oh well, it won't be the first or last time I was wrong. I feel sorry for the Red Hatters and clone redistributors. They're stuck in a rerun of an old, ugly fight. ®