Gartner: Some risk, minimal savings with Oracle Linux

Oracle isn't making much of a dent in Red Hat's Linux business, perhaps because its support and cost advantages may be overstated, according to Gartner.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

When Oracle decided to fork Red Hat Enterprise Linux, it did so under the banner of offering improved support and lower costs for its customers. Oracle Enterprise Linux has failed to set the world on fire, perhaps in part, as Gartner highlights in a new research report ("Red Hat vs. Oracle Linux Support: When and How Does It Matter?"), because its cost and support advantages appear to be overstated.

Oracle Enterprise Linux Oracle
While some Oracle customers may disagree, the company wins awards for the quality of its support. But it's hard to see how Oracle can match Red Hat for Linux support because Oracle contributes dramatically less (3.3 percent compared to Red Hat's 12.3 percent) to the Linux kernel.

It's hard to compete on supporting code when you write and influence much less of it.

But Oracle can charge less, right? Yes, it can. Gartner reports: "Some 90 percent of users that have gotten a price quote on Linux from Oracle claim that Oracle has lower support fees due to aggressive discounts, with most users saying the fees are 50 percent below Red Hat."

A 50 percent discount sounds great, right?

Maybe. That discount comes at a significant cost, for several reasons that Gartner points out:

  1. Although Oracle claims that it maintains lockstep on RHEL [Red Hat Enterprise Linux] code, and applications need not be separately certified to Oracle if certified for RHEL, in reality, users bear some risk to assure quality of service. [Translation: Oracle Enterprise Linux (OEL) customers have to invest extra budget to ensure their applications will run seamlessly on OEL.]
  2. OEL begins with the source code of a RHEL version as its base....However, if a priority fix is required for a problem in RHEL code in a complex configuration, then there is the potential for temporary forking....Thus, Oracle users are likely to have a different patch from a Red Hat-supported configuration, at least temporarily....Of course, users need to go through regression testing to make sure that the temporary fix has not created potential problems. This puts Oracle in the position of quickly reacting to problems of severe priority; however, users must monitor the fixes closely. [Translation: OEL customers must do regression testing and closely monitor OEL fixes to ensure they'll work.]
  3. Users with RHEL contracts will face significant challenges in reducing support costs by selecting specific Red Hat-supported servers and not others. [Translation: Because of Red Hat's pricing/contractual terms, it becomes difficult to mix-and-match support for some servers while not for others, so it may be hard to find cost savings this way.]

According to Gartner, it is this last item that may be driving the most interest in OEL, because Oracle doesn't adopt Red Hat's "all-or-none" approach to Linux server support. Even so, Gartner only finds 20 percent of Red Hat customers surveyed are annoyed by its contract policies. That's a significant number, but not overwhelming.

Given Oracle's aggressive discounts, including its willingness to buy out the remainder of a customer's Red Hat contract, as Gartner reports, one would think that it would be flying high. But it's not. OEL has roughly 2 percent market share, compared to Red Hat's 60 percent market share. Enterprises aren't stupid: if Oracle's Linux story were compelling, they'd be buying. But they're clearly not.

Not that Red Hat is in the clear. Its biggest weakness against Oracle and others is that Oracle can sell a much more complete story to the CIO. Red Hat, to the extent that it talks to the CIO at all, is a tactical decision. It's an important tactical decision, but big contracts are awarded to companies like SAP that promise dramatic competitive differentiation through optimized business processes.

The best Red Hat can do is improve performance and lower costs on server infrastructure. This isn't insignificant, but it's not something that gives Red Hat an impregnable hold on a CIO's attention and wallet. While I've only seen one defection to OEL in the past two years within Alfresco's customer base, I have seen an increasing number shifting to alternatives like CentOS.

In sum, while Oracle's Linux play isn't yet serious competition to Red Hat, it does establish just how limited Red Hat's position is.

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