A dramatic disagreement in the enterprise Linux community has some distributions scrambling to keep their code compatible with Red Hat, as the acknowledged biggest player in the space cracks down on source code distribution.
The core issue is the existence of several “downstream” Linux distributions based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Those distributions were historically based on CentOS, a free RHEL clone developed originally for the purposes of testing and development.
The downstream distributions in question, however, are supported by companies like CIQ and Oracle – which sell support services for their “clones” of RHEL.
This has led to a long-running tension between those companies and Red Hat, whose supporters argue that the downstream companies are simply repackaging Red Hat’s work for profit, while detractors say that Red Hat is violating the sprit – if not, technically, the law – of open source.
The first changes occurred two years ago, when Red Hat stopped supporting CentOS, moving to a distribution called CentOS Stream. CentOS Stream is an upstream distribution, however, which means that it is updated and modified far more often than Red Hat’s stable branch – and also that it’s far less suitable for use in production environments.
But it’s Red Hat’s recent changes to the way it handles its source code that have rocked the downstream ecosystem – the company has restricted access to paying customers only – and prompted the creation of the Open Enterprise Linux Association, founded earlier this month by Oracle, SUSE and CIQ.
The OpenELA group’s initial messaging talks a lot about maintaining standards and helping to ensure compatibility across ecosystems, but the organisation’s focus seems tightly fixed on ensuring the continued availability of source code for the RHEL clone distributions for which its founders sell support services.
To that end, the group’s members have sought out new and different ways of acquiring Red Hat source code for its distributions. Greg Kurtzer, founder of CentOS and RockyLinux, and the CEO of CIQ, said that it’s been a relatively straightforward process, after some initial misgivings.
“At first, everybody was very nervous, including the Rocky team,” he said. “[But] it didn’t take us very long to figure out that, wait a second, this source code is available in many places, and you don’t have to sign terms and conditions that limit your ability to distribute it from these other locations.”
One such method, according to Kurtzer, is obtaining universal base container images from sources like Docker Hub. This provides a full picture of the source code, and, according to the OpenELA team, doesn’t violate licensing or contractual rules.
Additionally, Kurtzer added, many of the packages that go into any eventual RHEL build can be freely found upstream or in CentOS Stream, providing another source for the downstream distributions.
“We continue to do exactly what we’ve been doing in that regard,” he said. “That’s still available to us.”
Unsurprisingly, however, the group is critical of Red Hat’s actions, saying that the restrictions on source code reflect a violation of the spirit, at least, of the GPL.
“One of the things that we’ve identified is Red Hat’s [customer contract] prohibits you from distributing any of the sources or assets that you’re getting,” Kurtzer said. “It’s a difficult one, because they’re not going against the GPL, but they’re saying if you exercise your rights according to the GPL, we will drop you as a customer.”
Recreating a bug-compatible (i.e. an almost perfect) replication of RHEL is still a difficult task, despite the steps that OpenELA members have taken to recreate it. The source code itself is only part of the issue, as there are underlying interdependencies that might not be readily apparent upon viewing the raw source. Yet the OpenELA team is bullish on its chances of staying current and keeping the downstream distributions sufficiently compatible.
“I think we’ve done a great job in calming the storm,” said SUSE executive Alan Clarke. “Things are going well, and we’re going to continue to deliver our products focused on the market.”
Ultimately, the OpenELA group sees business continuing more or less as usual for its members, Clarke said.
“It’s not like there’s not product out there today that our users and community and consumers can leverage – it exists today,” he said. “This is just a growth and continuation of what’s been going on.”