Programmers bypass Red Hat Linux fees

Red Hat spent months making the newest version of its premium product. Outside programmers released a free clone in less than two weeks.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
8 min read
It took Red Hat 16 months to produce the newest version of its premium Linux product, which went on sale in February for as much as $2,499 per computer per year.

It took a group of programmers less than two weeks to release a free clone. But the move could help Red Hat as much as it appears to hurt it.

The clone is from a project called CentOS--Community Enterprise Operating System--one of several "Red Hat rebuilders" that have partially nullified Red Hat's business decision in 2003 to stop giving away its supported and certified product for free. CentOS and others--Lineox, White Box Linux, Tao Linux, X/OS Linux and Scientific Linux--all rebuild a copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux from the source code components Red Hat releases.


What's new:
Free clones of Red Hat's premium Linux product are readily available.

Bottom line:
Though that might seem like a threat to Red Hat's business, the company says the clones--unsupported as they are--could actually help, by getting people hooked on the OS and getting them to think about the benefits of a support package. Still, some say support is unnecessary.

More stories on Red Hat

The clones are both a boon and a bane for Red Hat, which used an aggressive pricing plan to profit from its status as the top seller of the open-source operating system.

On the one hand, the rebuilders draft off Red Hat's labors while depriving the company of potential customers for its software and the support that goes along with it. On the other, though, they help cement the dominance of Red Hat's software and spread it to those who might eventually decide Red Hat's services and reliability are worth the price.

It's clear, however, that many Red Hat clone users aren't likely to embrace the original anytime soon.

"I don't pay for Linux, and I have absolutely no need for a Red Hat-style subscription (for) support," said Collins Richey, a Denver Linux enthusiast who uses CentOS on his personal computers to keep them compatible with work machines. "I'm considering recommending CentOS for limited use as a trial project...at work."

Red Hat chooses to see the glass as half full, with spokeswoman Leigh Day calling the clones "good news" because they could attract new customers.

"If they try versions that are not supported or supported inadequately, they will get a hint of the value propositions that are available for Linux

and ultimately turn to a company that can support their businesses," Day said.

Red Hat did clamp down partway on CentOS in February. Its lawyers demanded the rebuilder strip out trademarked Red Hat names and logos.

However, if Red Hat truly wanted to hamper the rebuilders, it could stop its current practice of releasing its product's source code in the convenient packages called source RPM files.

"Red Hat should be thanked for making this so easy for all of the rebuild efforts," said Greg Kurtzer, who founded the Caos Foundation that runs the CentOS project. "I am not going to fault them for trying to make money."

Red Hat will continue releasing the source RPM files. "What we're doing now we'll continue to do for the long term," Day said.

Despite the availability of alternatives, Red Hat subscription sales increased from 33,000 in the quarter ended November 2003 to 132,000 a year later. That's solid growth, but it's not as high as the peak of 144,000 in the quarter ended August 2004. Red Hat is expected to release sales figures for its most recent quarter on March 31.

Some see an upper limit to how much the Linux seller can charge. "The real reason Linux is our choice is cost," said Brian Trudeau of Eastek International in Buffalo, N.Y., a CentOS user. "Why pay for Red Hat when it costs as much as Windows?"

Send in the clones
There are several prominent RHEL rebuild projects besides CentOS:

• Finnish Lineox, which released its clone of RHEL 4 on Feb. 25, charges between 5 euros and 15 euros ($7 to $20) per server for its software update service.

• White Box Enterprise Linux was born when Red Hat dropped its freely available commercial product, Red Hat Linux, said project founder John Morris, who runs dozens of servers and personal computers using Linux at Beauregard Parish Public Library in DeRidder, La. "We have workstation hardware that costs less than a RHEL contract, so something had to give when Red Hat dumped Red Hat Linux in favor of RHEL, and thus WBEL was born," he said.

• Tao Linux is a "community supported" version not intended for mission-critical computers; users are expected to solve problems on their own or with help from mailing lists.

• Scientific Linux is maintained by programmers at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and other labs. It's geared for technical tasks at labs and universities.

• X/OS Linux, for which X/OS, a computing company in Amsterdam, sells support.

CentOS in the limelight
CentOS was an offshoot of a separate Linux project called Caos Linux, said Kurtzer, who is a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory administrator and a programmer as well. But it turned out the Caos Foundation's more popular project was a rebuild of RHEL.

"For a new distribution to be widely used, it must demonstrate to the community that the project and the product are both stable, reliable solutions," Kurtzer said. "But because CentOS is based on a known codebase, it was able to short-circuit the typical path and become an almost instant success."

Kurtzer doesn't have firm numbers, but he estimates there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of CentOS users. The first version was announced in December 2003.

CentOS doesn't veer from the Red Hat course. "The point...is to be as legally identical as possible," Kurtzer said. CentOS tries, for example, to build security updates as quickly as possible, with an informal guarantee of a 24-hour turnaround after Red Hat releases the original.

CentOS isn't exactly free. The Caos Foundation asks for a $12 per

server per year donation to defray download costs, though few beyond some companies pay, Kurtzer said.

The support question
After Red Hat launched RHEL, it also began a project called Fedora. That version of Linux is available for free, but it's a fast-changing and unsupported product geared for hobbyists and programmers who can help work the kinks out of the latest software packages.

RHEL, in contrast, changes slowly, with updates released roughly every 18 months so hardware and software companies have time to certify that their products work with the operating system. Support of a particular Red Hat version lasts for seven years for those who pay an annual support subscription.

"Enterprises may have been disabused of the notion that Linux is free, but that doesn't mean they want to pay through the nose for it just because it has (software partner) support," said RedMonk analyst James Governor.

There are risks to leaving the official Red Hat fold, though. A customer isn't going to get much hand-holding, for example.

"We support three forms of Linux: Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server and Asianux," said Anne Pace, a spokeswoman for storage specialist EMC. "We chose those three because when we scan our customers, those seem to be the versions of Linux that our customers seem to be going with."

EMC will try to help customers using other versions, Pace said. But if they're using a Linux version EMC doesn't support, "we can only go so far, so they'll probably need to be diverted back to the Linux company to try to figure it," she said.

Oracle, a major software power and Linux backer, supports the same three Linux versions as EMC, but it has a stricter policy because it wants to keep the number of varying Linux versions to a minimum.

"Oracle wants to prevent fragmentation in the Linux distribution space," Monica Kumar, senior manager of Oracle's Linux product marketing, said in a statement. "Because of the indeterminate number of possible distributions and Oracle's desire to see customers succeed, it is necessary to confine enterprise-class support to those distributions that Oracle believes can be successfully deployed and supported in enterprise-class environments."

Do it yourself
Many who opt for Red Hat rebuilds are confident of their own expertise, though.

"I've had years' worth of support from Red Hat and have never called them once," said Jacob Leaver, a senior systems administrator who

uses CentOS at his employer, a Washington-based Internet service provider. "I find that I can usually provide the answer to a technical problem using a Google search."

That's also enough support for Claire Connelly, a systems administrator who helps run 66 Linux servers at Harvey Mudd College's Mathematics Department.

"Convincing me to run RHEL on more of our systems would require Red Hat to add some significant value over community rebuilds or other distributions," Connolly said. "I don't have a problem with giving Red Hat some money, as they do a great job contributing code and support to the community. The problem is that their current pay-for-support structure doesn't work very well for our situation. As an academic institution, we don't have tons of money to throw around for 'enterprise-level support.'"

A year and a half after Red Hat introduced the first version of RHEL, it announced deep discounts to education customers that had been alienated by the pricing choice.

But those educational discounts haven't been steep enough for some others, either. The University of Manchester uses Linux on a "couple hundred" workstations and servers, said Niels Walet, a professor with the university's School of Physics and Astronomy. His main concerns with Red Hat are support and fees, he said. He's moving several CentOS systems under his purview to Scientific Linux to maintain compatibility among university groups.

Some clone users could be drawn into the Red Hat fold, though. One is Maciej Zenczykowski, a CentOS user and student in Poland who runs Linux on three university servers and four Internet servers for his own and three other apartment buildings. He'd be willing to pay $50 to $100 per year for software support, and he needs the RHEL compatibility to ensure that software from Hewlett-Packard works properly.

"Frankly, I wanted to go with RHEL 4 on (an) enterprise-level server at the university. I even had the $50 ready for an academic license," he said. But Red Hat's Polish reseller was charging about $120, and trying to coax longer-term support payments out of the university's financial department was frustrating, so CentOS won out.

Freedom from bureaucracy is one of the reasons Dave Parsley, an administrator at Alfred University in New York, founded Tao Linux.

"It's always easier to pop a DVD into the drive to install it and not register and not do any paperwork," Parsley said. "It's like the old days of Linux--just install and go."