Recent changes to how Red Hat makes source code to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) available have raised the ire of some within Linux and GPLv2 circles. However, the changes are intended to help Red Hat compete more effectively in the enterprise Linux market, which is ultimately good for customers and the Linux community. Find out how the changes may impact your company’s use of Linux.

Increased RHEL copycats compelled Red Hat to action
Since RHEL 6 was released nearly 4 months ago, Red Hat has decided to ship the kernel source code with Red Hat’s selected patches pre-applied. Prior to RHEL 6, Red Hat offered their selected patches separate form the standard Linux kernel available from kernel.org. Prior to the change, interested parties could more easily determine what changes Red Hat had made to the standard Linux kernel?

This seemingly inconsequential shift in packaging has resulted in some Linux advocates questioning whether Red Hat is obfuscating their work. Some have claimed that Red Hat’s new approach adheres to the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the Linux GPLv2 license.

Why is Red Hat taking this new position?

Red Hat CTO and VP of Worldwide Engineering, Brian Stevens, explains:

To speak bluntly, the competitive landscape has changed. 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.

Having recently met Stevens, I’m reassured that my initial pegging of him as a straight shooter and pragmatic thinker was spot on.

At first glance, it’s hard to believe that RHEL has much to worry about in the enterprise Linux market. Even as Ubuntu grows in cloud deployments and Amazon Linux offers an alternative to RHEL on Amazons’s cloud, RHEL remains firmly in a leadership position. For instance, as this chart from Indeed.com job trends indicates, RHEL skills are is hot demand, and still on a growth trajectory far and above Ubuntu, CentOS, Oracle Linux and Novell SUSE.

However, as Stevens indicates, while RHEL usage and demand for RHEL skills may be increasing, Red Hat is not longer the only vendor in town to offer RHEL support. In fact, third-party vendors that offer lower cost RHEL support than Red Hat offers have the added benefit of not having to invest in developing RHEL, or the RHEL clone, to the degree that Red Hat does. This lower level of investment allows third-party vendors to offer lower cost support than Red Hat.

The long term competitive impacts of lower cost Linux offerings
Some companies are attracted to these lower cost RHEL support providers. However, one must question the value that these third parties deliver to the Linux market, and their impact on paying Red Hat customers, especially in light of Red Hat’s decision surrounding kernel and fix packaging.

It’s well documented that Red Hat invests significantly in Linux community projects. These investments are funded by revenue from RHEL customers. Third party RHEL providers are significantly less active in the Linux community, as is necessitated by their lower investment business model.

Its difficult to argue that the Linux community is better off when a customer willing to pay for RHEL support does so through a third party.

The customer does benefit from lower costs in the short term. But, the long term impact is the risk of a less competitive Linux, unless and until these third party RHEL providers step up their community Linux investments.

While RHEL may have the dominant market share in the enterprise, Red Hat is trailing in areas such as virtualization and cloud deployments. A growing revenue base helps Red Hat, like any vendor, invest in new areas and to close the competitive gap in areas that it’s trailing.

How Red Hat’s new policy may impact your company
Red Hat’s new policy has little, if any, impact on Red Hat customers as NetworkWorld’s Stephen Walli concludes. Walli suggests that the recent negative press about Red Hat’s has blown the situation out of proportion.

If you’re paying for a RHEL clone, don’t be surprised if your costs go up as your vendor’s cost may have a more difficult time keeping in sync with RHEL.  It’s also possible that your RHEL clone provider will have a more difficult time claiming full compatibility with RHEL, thereby making it more difficult to run ISV applications certified on RHEL, but not on your RHEL clone. As a result, your company may be faced with a future decision of continuing to use the RHEL clone with third party support, or moving to Red Hat for support.

I tend to agree with Walli. It’s not only Red Hat’s right to compete, but in the best interests of its customers and the Linux community as a whole.

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.”