Enterprise Unix Roundup: Send in the Clones

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Mar 10, 2005


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The GPL makes duplication of Red Hat Enterprise Linux legal. What does an RHEL twin mean for the vendor? For your IMAP data migration problems, consider the freely available Mailsync or iSync.

Amy Newman
Michael Hall

When you play in a public sandbox, anyone can copy your castle. So it was only a matter of time before the commercial Linux vendors saw even their enterprise-grade wares imitated.

The Finnish group Lineox released a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 4 clone on Feb. 25, Pie Box Linux followed with its iteration three days later, and CentOS released a clone on March 2. A RHEL 4 clone is also expected from Whitebox Linux sometime soon. In each case, the groups involved simply downloaded the freely available Red Hat source code and compiled it, providing a working RHEL distribution for the cost of bandwidth.

Red Hat couldn't have been surprised. As the ringleader in the open source playground, it knows the rules, and it has been the frequent subject of redistribution for years. The current spate of clones is interesting only because it targets Red Hat's "enterprise" offerings.

The company's well-crafted response is well-worn. Red Hat walks a fine line: The GPL requires it to make the source public of whatever it sells, and it does, which means Lineox and Pie Box have as much of a right to download the code and tweak it and then charge for the redistribution (with some caveats) as we do. What cloners don't have the right to do is resell Red Hat's intellectual property, namely trademarks.

Red Hat's objection is not to downloading the source packages, rebuilding the distro, or distributing it. It is not even publicly objecting to others making money from its code. That is, after all, a risk one takes with the GPL, and that is part of why Red Hat continues to position its support for RHEL as its main value add.

Red Hat's biggest issue thus far is "balancing the interests of open source software with the need to protect its own interests." Namely, the vendors slapping the Red Hat logo all over their sites.

As noted on CentOS' site, which received a letter from Red Hat a few weeks before it released version 4:

"We understand that you are distributing, on your Web site located at http://www.centos.org, CentOS Enterprise class Linux software that was developed using Red Hat's open source software," the letter states. "While Red Hat permits others to redistribute the software that constitutes Red Hat Linux, Red Hat does not authorize any person to use the RED HAT marks in association with such redistribution in any fashion, except by express agreement," it continued.

"In this regard, [the company] is concerned that your use of the RED HAT marks on your Web site in this manner is likely to create confusion, mistake and/or deception among consumers with respect to the source, origin, sponsorship or approval of the products sold under your company name."

The vendor removed all Red Hat references from its site and now refers to the company as, "a Prominent North American Enterprise Linux Vendor."

We suspect the tears we're seeing from Red Hat management are by and large a front. It knows it must act mildly but patiently aggrieved, and it knows it must take a public position, even if that position amounts to little more than declaring an awareness of the situation.

Red Hat's biggest issue thus far is "balancing the interests of open source software with the need to protect its own interests." Namely, the vendors slapping the Red Hat logo all over their sites.

Beyond the necessary legal jockeying, however, we wouldn't be surprised if there is much back slapping going on in Raleigh, N.C. It's not a big leap to see this as further confirmation that people are basically sold on Red Hat. As the number-one Linux vendor in the United States, Red Hat's support is its bread and butter. In many cases, this support has opened data center doors and gotten Linux on mission-critical servers.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that an inexpensive but unsupported clone would take its place.

What is more likely is that enterprises will install a clone distro rather than a Debian or Fedora distro for back-office nonmission-critical apps. Here, an RHEL knock-off makes for an easy way to leverage established in-house support, and it provides that support with a consistent platform across the organization.

The openness of the GPL also works in Red Hat's favor: Should some innovation be added to the cloned version of RHEL, Red Hat can simply pick it up through the GPL. Which only goes to prove the GPL is indeed working the way it's supposed to.

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