Red Hat Fights Back

Open source software companies have always been the hippies of the software world, spreading the digital love and sharing their work with the community. But now, Red Hat has pulled off its kaftan and is starting to get real.

These days, open source software is not just about peace, love and digital freedom; it's also about turning a profit. Red Hat, clearly tired of the other Linux vendors using its Linux server OS as a foundation for their services, is changing its rules with the latest release of RHEL.

Something like that anyway. Essentially what's happened is that Red Hat Red (NYSE: RHT) has gotten fed up with what it sees as companies like Oracle and Novell sidling up to its Linux server operating system customers in a shifty manner and whispering "Wanna buy cheap support for Red Hat Enterprise Linux?" Red Hat finds this galling because it effectively gives away RHEL server OS as a loss leader so it can sell support and other services, and it doesn't see why Oracle and others should act like parasites, making money from its hard work.

That's why with the release of RHEL 6, Red Hat began to do something new. Instead of releasing the kernel package in its upstream form, with separate patches to be applied at build-time, all the patches are now pre-applied. This makes it much harder for competitors to pinch Red Hat's support business, says Brian Stevens, Red Hat CTO.

Our competitors in the Enterprise Linux market have changed their commercial approach from building and competing on their own customized Linux distributions, to one where they directly approach our customers offering to support RHEL. Frankly, our response is to compete. Essential knowledge that our customers have relied on to support their RHEL environments will increasingly only be available under subscription. The itemization of kernel patches that correlate with articles in our knowledge base is no longer available to our competitors, but rather only to our customers who have recognized the value of RHEL and have thus indirectly funded Red Hat's contributions to open source that will advance their business now and in the future.

From a business perspective, you can absolutely see Red Hat's point. The company must make money, so why should it give away information that makes it easier for competitors to grab Red Hat's support business? From a community perspective, isn't it better that Red Hat gets the support contracts so it can use the money to develop solid open source servers, rather than other companies that, in Stevens' view, no longer compete by developing their own customized distros.

Not everyone sees it that way, though, and Red Hat's behavior is making some people very mad indeed. Mostly that's because they see it as against the spirit of the GPL. People like Maxamillian Attems, a member of the Debian kernel team, for example. "Red Hat Enterprise 6.0 is shipping the linux-2.6 2.6.32 in obfuscated form," he says. "They released their linux-2.6 as one big tarball clashing with the spirit of the GPL. One can only mildly guess from the changelog which patches get applied. This is in sharp contrast to any previous Red Hat release and has not yet generated the sharp and snide comments in press it deserves. Red Hat should really step back and not make such stupid management moves."

What's really going on here is Red Hat being confronted with some harsh realities. Open source software is all about everyone contributing for the good of everyone else. Running a business is all about competing with other companies to earn money from customers. Working hard and getting poorer while making the likes of Oracle richer is a mug's game, and not one that Red Hat is interested in playing. The company has done a lot for the open source movement, so who can blame it if on this occasion it feels it has to act in its own best interests. Even if that's not quite within the spirit of the GPL?

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Mar 8, 2011
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