There was a somewhat quiet, cost-free acquisition of sorts in the Linux world earlier this year when Red Hat announced it was joining forces with Red Hat Enterprise Linux community clone CentOS. The move, which effectively brings organization, governance, backing and technology of CentOS under Red Hat’s brim, is interesting for a few reasons.
First, it illustrates the continued presence and power of unpaid community Linux distributions like CentOS. Second, it’s part of the changing Linux market, which is being driven by cloud computing and new types of uses on the rise. Third, it also may be a sign that open source software users and customers are exerting more influence than ever before.
I’ve written before about CentOS, which is unique in that the open source operating system — a free clone of Red Hat’s paid RHEL — and project always has had a core of dedicated developers, but not much beyond that.
Before joining with Red Hat this year, CentOS had no corporation, no foundation, no formal organization behind it, though the community is known to support users, including large enterprises and service providers.
Red Hat’s move to join forces with CentOS is a testament to the strength, vitality and reach of the open source CentOSproject. With a known, trusted vendor such as Red Hat now there to back it, CentOS is also in a much stronger position to gain large users and more credibility in the market.
While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, our research and conversations consistently have indicated that large enterprise and service provider companies often are the most likely to use unpaid, community Linux distributions. The reasons typically vary, but it often comes down to cost or the fact that these companies are the ones with the teams, experience and expertise to be able to support themselves.
It was no real secret to Red Hat or anyone else that large customers might be using CentOS alongside RHEL servers that were covered under support subscriptions, thus likely getting support from Red Hat for CentOS already.
While there are some fears that Red Hat will nudge CentOS users into paid RHEL use, Red Hat’s history and experience indicate it will more likely try to entice CentOS users to paid RHEL. The joining of forces actually may be good news for organizations that had been using CentOS quietly, as this type of deployment now seems more like something that is sanctioned by Red Hat.
Red Hat makes no secret of the fact it is trying to grow its ecosystem and subscriptions to its paid software by officially working with and supporting CentOS, including RHEL as well as other infrastructure, cloud, storage and network software.
However, CentOS likely will continue to serve as a check for the company to differentiate its paid software with compelling features, functionality and support. We saw this happen when Oracle introduced its own clone of RHEL more than seven years ago. Red Hat repeatedly indicated this had no effect on its pricing, but the company did concede it had stepped up its support in response.
Cloud Driving Convergence
Bringing CentOS under its tent also represents Red Hat’s acquisition of a community Linux that closely matches its own enterprise distribution, similar to a model that has helped drive Ubuntu, which is available for free or with paid support from Canonical.
One example of the benefit of a close community-Linux cousin is the growing OpenStack project and community, early use of which was dominated by Ubuntu in both free and paid form. Red Hat would probably like to see the same linkage from OpenStack on CentOS to OpenStack on RHEL as it focuses heavily on the cloud. In addition, CentOS is better suited for this role than Red Hat’s Fedora community version, which generally is considered too bleeding-edge for most users.
The move also may represent Red Hat reaching out beyond its core enterprise market and targeting service providers, who are among the heaviest CentOS users according to our conversations and research.
Red Hat’s laser focus on the enterprise may be spreading out the way the market is, with cloud computing growth driving the convergence of large enterprise and service provider customers. CentOS, which offers RHEL-like stability and reliability, is free without licensing and scales well, making it popular in the service provider market for some time.
There has been some speculation that Red Hat and CentOS joining up will drive use of other community distributions, including Debian and Ubuntu, as users and organizations try to avoid vendor entanglement.
However, Red Hat has proven many times — with JBoss middleware, KVM hypervisor, Gluster storage and other software — that it can acquire and oversee open source projects without tainting them with commercial efforts or otherwise fouling them up. I expect most CentOS users, like the project itself, stand to gain from wearing Red Hat.
As for Red Hat, joining with CentOS represents a net win in terms of growing community, ecosystem and paying customers. This is true even though the number and type of CentOS servers being supported on RHEL contracts is likely to grow. The challenge for Red Hat, then, is to make its support and services compelling enough to make users willing or even desiring to pay, which is essentially the company’s core proposition as the largest supporter of the free and open source Linux OS.