UPDATED 17:03 EDT / JULY 13 2023


Red Hat’s code restrictions draw mostly sympathetic response from open-source providers

Over the 30 years of its existence, Red Hat Inc. has cultivated a nice-guy image for its practice of releasing all the fruits of its software development efforts as open-source code for anyone to use. But over the past three weeks that image has taken a hit.

The company’s decision last month to impose restrictions on the availability of the source code for its flagship Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system has sparked outrage in some circles, but observers who were contacted by SiliconANGLE were mostly sympathetic to its position.

Some called the move a wise or even necessary business decision made to combat a growing crop of RHEL clones. And though the new guidelines may ruffle some feathers in the short term, customers may have more choices in the long run.

The kerfuffle started late last month when Mike McGrath, vice president of core platforms at Red Hat, posted an announcement that the company will no longer make the source code for RHEL available in public repositories but will restrict access to paying customers or developers who agree not to redistribute it. The move was seen as a shot at Alma Linux and Rocky Linux, which are two RHEL-compatible distributions that are available at no cost along with the source code.

The company said RHEL code will continue to be available in CentOS Stream, a second generation of the Community Enterprise Linux Operating System that Red Hat acquired in 2014 and discontinued three years ago. CentOS Stream is now essentially a rolling beta test for new features in RHEL, but because the features in it won’t necessarily make it into the production version of RHEL, makers of compatible operating systems can’t guarantee feature-for-feature parity.

Unleashing the Kraken

The move set off a minor earthquake in the open-source world, with hundreds of mostly negative comments piling up in forms such as Reddit. The aftershocks continued this week when Rocky Linux Founder Greg Kurtzer issued a statement criticizing the “predictable, unnecessary, avoidable and counterproductive consequences” of the limitations and suggested that the move would backfire on Red Hat by elevating the profile of alternatives such as his.

Oracle Corp. also joined the chorus this week with a blog post that pointed the finger at Red Hat parent IBM Corp. and accused the computing giant of anticompetitive tactics. “Fewer competitors means more revenue opportunity for IBM,” wrote Chief Corporate Architect Edward Screven and Head of Oracle Linux Development Wim Coekaerts. Oracle pledged to make the source code of its own version of Linux freely available in perpetuity.

And on Tuesday, Red Hat rival SUSE SA said it will commit more than $10 million to create an RHEL-compatible distribution and donate it to a foundation to ensure ongoing source code availability.

Executives at companies that do business in the open-source world differed on whether Red Hat’s decision is a natural consequence of maturing industry or a tactic to block competition. Most acknowledged that the company’s explanation that it couldn’t keep funding the development of software that competitors then gave away for free was reasonable.

But not Bill Ottman, founder and chief executive officer of Minds Inc., a social network built on open-source code.“ They are completely embarrassing themselves by betraying the community and their own model,” he said. “Their best bet is to immediately reverse course and apologize.”

Protecting profitability

Others were more inclined to agree with Josh Amishav, founder and CEO of data breach monitoring firm Breachsense. “If we want commercial entities to support our underlying operating system, they need to find ways to be profitable,” he said. “If you disagree with Red Hat’s policy change, then there are plenty of excellent Linux alternatives to choose from.”

Some saw the move as a consequence of pressure inside IBM to justify the $34 billion it paid to buy Red Hat nearly five years ago. “Red Hat has to change to protect its business,” said Joe Brockmeier, head of community at open-source developer Percona LLC and a former Red Hat employee. “They seem to have tried to find the least harmful way to do that. It’s a necessary decision, although one that could have been communicated a little better.”

Brockmeier agreed with Red Hat’s argument that it can’t continue to fund innovations and give them away for free. “Copying a company’s product isn’t what open source is about,” he said. “The code is what allows every company and individual to run, study, modify and distribute work based on a project. The members of the community can do those things; what they are finding harder to do is to ‘clone’ RHEL.”

Not everyone buys the argument that IBM needed to wring more revenue out of its subsidiary. “Considering IBM’s gross profit for [fiscal 2022] was $32.863 billion, this certainly wasn’t a make-or-break decision for IBM’s profitability,” said Kadan Stadelmann, chief technology officer at Komodo, developer of a cryptocurrency and blockchain platform.

And there’s some risk to Red Hat in closing down source code access. “By totally removing free and open-source software, Red Hat may not necessarily increase revenues that much while alienating its large community of open-source developers,” Stadelmann said.

Alternatives arise

There’s evidence that’s already happening, at least for now. Red Hat’s action has both energized and elevated the profiles of some open-source alternatives. “Companies are trying to claim they’re more open than Red Hat to capitalize on the anger being directed at Red Hat,” Brockmeier said.

Although the company’s action may be inconsistent with the spirit of open source, “it’s also been nearly 40 years since the GNU Project was founded and the world has changed in that time,” said Spencer Greene, general partner of venture capital firm TSVC Management LLC, referring to the free software movement that goes by the recursive acronym “GNU’s Not Unix.”

Despite the current blowback, he said, “they likely don’t perceive much downside” to the policy change. “They may not be challenged. If they are they may prevail and in the worst case, they may be forced to reopen the source code. So, not much to lose,” he said.

Brockmeier agreed that there’s a silver lining for Red Hat in the storm the policy change has triggered. “The fact that a slight change in source code policy has sparked widespread panic illustrates that industry adoption of RHEL and its clones is enormous,” he said. “Red Hat’s revenue is a fraction of competitors like Oracle who are attempting to throw stones at it and IBM over this.”

Red Hat’s actions are reminiscent of the campaign by several open-source-based firms six years ago to modify software licenses to limit the use of the code they developed. However, observers don’t see the latest steps as the start of a broader trend. “It’s not going to set any kind of industrywide precedent,” Ottman said. “Open source is exploding on every front.”

Open source grows up

Green sees the move as a sign of a maturing industry. “Even without this action, as other segments mature, they will move from growth mode to increasing profit per customer to cost-cutting,” he said.

The rapid response by rivals this week to assure the market that their code will remain available indicates that customers will continue to have plenty of choices, Brockmeier said. Everyone will just need to work harder. “It is up to competitors to work to achieve the certifications and industry standing that comes along with the Red Hat and RHEL brands,” he said.

SUSE’s commitment to donate its distribution to a foundation is good news for customers, said Dan Ciruli, vice president of product at D2iQ Inc. developer of a Kubernetes management platform. Citing the example of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, he said, “Those projects that belong to the CNCF cannot be shuttered or closed because a single company decides to change its strategy.”

Ciruli, who spent more than seven years at Google LLC, said the enterprise mindset has changed such that many organizations now make openness table stakes for potential providers. “We had companies tell us straight out that they’d love to adopt our software but will not use it while it is owned by a single company,” he said.

And in the long run, he asserted, the Red Hat debate may be a tempest in a teapot. With cloud-based constructs making it possible for software to run anywhere, “which Linux is running underneath is becoming less important over time,” he said. “The move up the stack is absolutely happening.”

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