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Red Hat wants to shield itself from Oracle and Novell

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Mar. 6, 2011

In an effort in trying to shield itself from Oracle and Novell, Red Hat has modified the manner in which it distributes its Enterprise Linux kernel code. That change is meant to prevent Oracle and Novell from trying to woo some of its clients, and in the process making it more difficult for these competitors to realize which patches have been applied, when and where in the Linux kernel.

Some observers in the Linux community think that Red Hat's idea is a good one, and that other Linux distributions might do the same in the coming weeks.

Some have even speculated that the change in course is specifically designed to make it harder for Oracle as well as the open source CentOS project to build their own Linux distributions. But others say this is not the case. The change is meant to hamper Oracle and Novell's ability to offer support to customers who are already running Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

"We are taking steps that make it harder for competitors that wish to provide support services on top of Red Hat Enterprise Linux," said Red Hat chief technology officer Brian Stevens, before naming those competitors. "Today, there are two competitors that I'm aware of that go to our customers directly, offering to support RHEL directly for them-- Oracle and Novell. That's it."

Red Hat is trying to hide information from these competitors that is essential to providing support for RHEL specifically-- and all of that is perfectly understandable from a business standpoint. "What we're trying to impede is competitors that come to our long-time customers who are already running RHEL under subscription from Red Hat and saying 'Don't pay Red Hat anymore, pay us, and don't make any changes to your systems'," Stevens says.

He insists that the change doesn't violate either the letter or the spirit of RHEL's GPL open source license. "We were very careful that what we've done does not impede what our customers need to accomplish or what the community needs to accomplish."

And he says that the change would not really hamper the development of other Linux distributions, not even CentOS, which is Red Hat's perfect sibling.

In November 2010, and with the release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6, the company made available its Linux kernel with all patches pre-applied. "In the past, we distributed the kernel as a base file and then a set of add-on patches that accompany it. Then when you did a build, the build process automatically applied all those patches to the kernel file," Stevens says.

"Now, we integrate those patch files directly into the kernel. We do the first part of the build process prior to distribution," added Stevens.

"We haven't at all restricted CentOS' ability to take some source code and recompile it and clean-out trademarks and package it. It's just some of the knowledge of the insides that we're hiding," he explains. One longtime CentOS developer agrees. "I won't lose sleep over that," CentOS co-founder Russ Herold said.

And that in fact was recently noticed by Linux kernel-community member and LWN editor Jonathan Corbet, who took issue with the recent change, calling Red Hat's package 'obfuscated' kernel source code... (!)

"Overall, the distribution of an operating system in this manner should satisfy the GPL community, but it makes life a lot harder for anybody else wanting to see what has been done with the kernel, however" Corbet wrote. "Hopefully it's simply a mistake which will be corrected soon."

But others speculated that the move would undermine not only Oracle's "Unbreakable Linux", but also CentOS. Both are based on RHEL.

CentOS is meant to be a RHEL clone. Whereas the compiled bits of Red Hat Enterprise Linux are only available under a Red Hat paid subscription, CentOS is completely free.

The overall changes will make work harder for distributions such as CentOS, the community-built Linux distribution based on Red Hat's sources, some say. CentOS is built from the RHEL source by a limited number of volunteers and Red Hat's change in policy will mean more work for them unless more volunteers or other companies step in and provide them with assistance.

And we heard similar opinions from an experienced Linux kernel developer. He said that Red Hat's change was like shuffling all the cards in an old fashioned library file system the card you want is still there, but finding it is no easy task and that this would cause issues for CentOS, which is an economic threat to Red Hat.

But CentOS founder Russ Herold insists the change is not a big issue. "Private local trial builds of the released RHEL 6 sources by me and others have proceeded with no major issues. I just do not see that the changes as some earth-shattering change. I just think the patches will be incrementally more difficult to guess, however" he says.

"There's absolutely nothing in Red Hat's new approach that prevents a user or developer from running a local version-control system, containing the pristine kernel at point A, and the Red Hat variant which we might call point B. Then the user runs a 'diff' in that version-control system between A and B, and starts reading the differences to see what is happening.

Over time, both the pristine kernel, and the patched Red Hat versions will vary, and one will get a sense for which 'diff' parts matter, and which are cosmetic cleanups."

And other Linux distributions won't be affected either, Red Hat's Stevens says, because the company distributes its kernel changes upstream as well. "The work that we've done should not impede companies from building their own versions of Linux and supporting those for their own customers," he added. "All the code we deliver through RHEL is out there. In most cases, the changes that go into RHEL are there as well. We already distribute into the upstream kernel. We have an upstream-first policy, where we're developing openly and then later integrating into our tree and then delivering it. So it shouldn't at all affect the community in any way or anybody that's in the business of competing on that."

Stevens repeated twice that Red Hat is now trying hard to keep RHEL-specific knowledge away from Oracle and Novell. With past RHEL kernel-code distributions, the patches mapped to articles in Red Hat's knowledge base. "It makes competitors do heavy lifting," he says. "If you want to support RHEL, remove the trademarks, and do some heavy lifting. If nothing else, it causes competitors to have to invest in time and resources, and time and resources do cost money."

And this won't hamper CentOS, he says, because CentOS isn't in the support business in the first place. "The code is still available. It's just more difficult to support the distro as a commercial entity," added Stevens.

But Oracle and Novell are right smack in the support business, and whatever collateral damage was caused by Red Hat's change in policy, one thing is for sure: on some level, it will indeed be more difficult for Oracle and Novell to pilfer Red Hat's long-time customers, and that's the whole idea of the changes in the first place.

Some observers in the Linux community say that Red Hat didn't have a choice but to implement the changes if it wants to remain a viable and profitable public company.

Source: Red Hat.

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