Oracle's mixed messages on "compatibility" with Red Hat Enterprise Linux

Oracle wants its Linux both ways: it wants it to be different and it also wants it to be "fully compatible" with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Here's why it fails.

And to think I was an English Literature major at university and always prided myself on my command of syntax. But I admit that this 21st Century is confusing me. First, Bill Clinton redefined the meaning of the word "is." Now, Oracle is redefining the meaning of the phrase "fully compatible."

Oracle has repeatedly beat the drum that its Unbreakable Linux (Now called Oracle Enterprise Linux, apparently in an attempt to make people associate it even more with RHEL) is "100% compatible" with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. In fact, it can't stop regurgitating the assertion:

Oracle recently reported:

..."The operating system used was Oracle Enterprise Linux, which is fully compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and supported under the Oracle Unbreakable Linux program."...

If you read its FAQ [PDF], Oracle keeps up the "I am not a fork!" line:

..."Oracle Enterprise Linux is not a fork of Linux, as it is fully compatible - both source and binary - with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Compatibility and uniformity is of the utmost importance to Oracle, as the same version of Oracle products must run on many different Linux distributions; Oracle has no reason to fork Linux."...

None at all, except perhaps out of spite. Red Hat, however, has been clear that Oracle's Enterprise Linux is a fork of RHEL, and not one that is fully compatible:

Q: Will Oracle's product result in a "fork" of the operating system?

A: Yes. The changes Oracle has stated they will make will result in a different code base than Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Simply put, this derivative will not be Red Hat Enterprise Linux and customers will not have the assurance of compatibility with the Red Hat Enterprise Linux hardware and application ecosystem.

So, clearly we have a disagreement. But where it gets really murky is when Oracle starts disagreeing with itself [PDF]. It starts off well enough, assuring customers throughout the first two pages that the changes it makes to RHEL are minimal and will result in "absolutely no difference" to the customer.

But then you hit Appendix A, which lists two full pages of changes Oracle has made to RHEL. Some things are likely trivial changes, but how about the removal of RHEL's Global File System? Cluster Administration? Virtualization? Or a rip-and-replace of Red Hat Network with Oracle's "up2date"?

No offense, Oracle, but if it looks like a fork, smells like a fork, and acts like a fork, it's a fork, and "fully compatible" is simply not a credible guarantee. You can't change someone else's code and crown it "fully compatible."

See, the (Princeton) dictionary defines compatible thus:

Capable of being used with or connected to other devices or components without modification.

Adding the word "fully" to the definition makes it even stronger, and makes your claims even more incorrect. You have modified, and your customers simply don't have a credible guarantee that your modifications (which hardly look trivial to me) maintain compatibility with Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

"Compatible" I'll buy. "Fully compatible" I won't. Neither should your customers.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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