Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire contributing writer Jen McFarland has  20+ years working in IT with experiences across a range of tools and technologies. She wants to help small businesses and teams design, improve, and maintain the technology that helps them succeed. In 2022, she incorporated Marit Digital.

RALEIGH – Red Hat, built upon Linux and open source, is taking a great deal of heat for last month’s change to the distribution model for Community Enterprise Operating System  (CentOS) – a big hub in the Linux universe. More people will have to pay Red Hat to get the latest updates and many aren’t happy about it.

CentOS Linux 7 has maintenance updates scheduled through the end of June 2024, but as the June 21 blog post by Mike McGrath, VP of Core Platforms Engineering made clear, those will only be available through limited channels. While paying Red Hat customers and partners can still access CentOS Linux in the Red Hat Customer Portal, the only other option is the CentOS Stream, an “upstream”, beta version of RHEL. This change effectively bumps up the pressure on servers running CentOS Linux to start paying Red Hat.

Red Hat is clearly aware of this challenge and has positioned itself as the solution to the problem it created. Several recent blog posts on the site include instructions for the “direct path to a successful upgrade” via the obviously “optimal path forward“: Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

It’s a bad look and a sad state for a company that’s spent years building a collaborative, open-source-friendly brand.

Red Hat’s latest move ignites open source firestorm – some say it’s now ‘closed source’

Red Hat vs. CentOS

RHEL was started in 2000 as a Linux platform targeting commercial use. Because it’s open source and uses the GPL (GNU General Public License), the source code is freely available. Red Hat launched a company selling “free” software by focusing on support and training for the OS which many commercial customers desire, among its other products and services.

The Community Enterprise Operating System (CentOS) was started in 2004 as a RHEL derivative. Though it was not the only RHEL derivative, it eventually reached supremacy in the industry, at one point in use on 30% of Linux web servers. The project allowed users to utilize the OS for free if they were sufficiently savvy to compile, install and support it on their own. CentOS has community support, but its popularity – and RHEL’s – has long been tied to the dual nature of access: equivalent source code that is freely available, but with the ability to upgrade to a paid-support model if needed.

That flexibility is part of why it made some sense when in 2014, Red Hat decided to sponsor the CentOS project and incorporated it into the company. But even so, some questioned the move at the time – and for good reason. CentOS has always had a larger market share than RHEL. Today, according to the site SimilarTech, CentOS runs more than 250,000 Linux webservers. By contrast, RHEL is running on less than 20,000.

For a for-profit company like Red Hat, that means money is being left on the table. Maybe that was ok with Red Hat and their community Hatter brand, but after their 2019 purchase by IBM, there’s been unquestionable discomfort with the disparity.

IBM vs. CentOS

Since the IBM purchase, Red Hat’s support of CentOS has markedly eroded. The big change happened in December of 2020 when Red Hat terminated CentOS Linux development, announcing an early end-of-life support date for CentOS 8 and directing all future work to the CentOS Stream instead.

At the same time, the company has made it more and more difficult for others to start their own RHEL derivatives. The CentOS Stream “upstream” version of the RHEL code includes beta functionality in the works for future stable versions of RHEL. While this is potentially useful for testing, it’s not a viable product for those running CentOS on production servers. Now that access to a non-Stream version is restricted to paying Red Hat customers and partners it will be even more difficult to get access to stable versions of the OS.

One might justifiably ask how the new restrictions in access aren’t violating RHELs license, GPLv2. Technically, the source code of RHEL is still available, though as many have noted, the delivery channels for CentOS are clearly jeopardizing the spirit of open source.

Red Hat cutting hundreds of jobs, CEO says in letter to employees

From Red to Blue

Red Hat made its first major layoffs in April of this year, despite having announced the week before a quarterly revenue increase of 8%. The 8% was a drop over previous quarters and the lowest revenue increase since IBM’s 2019 purchase of the company, so potentially a disappointment for Big Blue.

In a letter that accompanied the layoff announcement, Red Hat CEO Matt Hicks said, “This structural change needs to be accompanied by a cultural change as well: We must choose to work and prioritize differently, or we simply recreate the challenges that got us here.”

Pretty clear language that Red Hat is under new management.

But while these decisions may look like hallmarks of IBM, Gunnar Hellekson, Red Hat’s VP and GM for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, has denied that they made this call.

“This was a Red Hat decision. I’ve heard all kinds of theories about why this happened and the truth is that this was a Red Hat decision.”

And maybe that is the headline: “Red Hat decisions” aren’t what they used to be. To be sure the dissolution of CentOS Linux indicates  – at a minimum – major damage to Red Hats’ positioning as a paragon of open source. It might even signal the end.

The next question then is, how will the end of that positioning impact the company? While Red Hat might be poised to take on the 200,000+ CentOS users I find it hard to believe that many of those forced to undertake a platform migration are going to be motivated to take that route. It will be interesting to see how the CentOS market share gets divvied up among Linux providers in the coming years.

For my part, I miss Red Hat and the Hatter brand. It may have had its flaws and questionable motivations, but for all those problems it was a model for a successful corporation that was trying not to be so darn capitalistic. That’s something we could use these days.