Will enterprise Linux wars leak into telco land?

A row about how open source Linux code has implications for telco. How?

An argument about keeping enterprise Linux code free and open within the Open Source community could impact telco efforts to develop their cloud-native infrastructure on open source technologies.

So what’s this all about?

A brief recap. At the end of June the IBM-owned Red Hat said that as it “furthered the evolution of CentOS Stream“, the focal point for RHEL collaboration would become “the sole repository for public RHEL-related source code releases,” with RHEL’s core code otherwise restricted to a customer portal. As one downstream distributor claimed, “Only Red Hat customer accounts can access Red Hat Software, and it is a violation of the Red Hat Subscription Agreement to re-distribute Red Hat Software, which includes using it in a downstream rebuild.”

That news kicked off a strong reaction among distributors and developers of RHEL-compatible software. They said the move had been designed to kill off the business models of the likes of “re-build” providers such as Rocky Linux and Alma Linux.

Rocky Linux said that it believes Red Hat’s moves “violate the spirit and purpose of open source.” It said that it would maintain what it considers legitimate access to RHEL code under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and make the code public as soon as it exists.

“[O]ur unwavering dedication and commitment to open source and the Enterprise Linux community remain steadfast,” the project wrote in its blog post.

AlmaLinux, said that it too would find alternative means to access the code it needs. “The process is more labor intensive as we require gathering data and patches from several sources, comparing them, testing them, and then building them for release,” Jack Aboutboul, community manager for AlmaLinux, said.

Even Oracle, by no means loved in the open source community, this week took the opportunity to aim a few jibes at Red Hat. In a post titled “Keep Linux Open and Free“, the company tore into Red Hat’s original post which outlined the changes to the tems of service.

“IBM doesn’t want to continue publicly releasing RHEL source code because it has to pay its engineers? That seems odd, given that Red Hat as a successful independent open source company chose to publicly release RHEL source and pay its engineers for many years before IBM acquired Red Hat in 2019 for $34 billion.

“The blog goes on to mention CentOS. It is no surprise CentOS was top of mind for the author attempting to justify withholding RHEL source. CentOS had been a very popular free RHEL compatible distribution. In December 2020, IBM effectively killed it as a free alternative to RHEL. Two new alternatives to RHEL have sprung up in CentOS’s place: AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux. Now, by withholding RHEL source code, IBM has directly attacked them.”

Finally, it makes some cheeky recommendations:

“One observation for ISVs: IBM’s actions are not in your best interest. By killing CentOS as a RHEL alternative and attacking AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux, IBM is eliminating one way your customers save money and make a larger share of their wallet available to you. If you don’t yet support your product on Oracle Linux, we would be happy to show you how easy that is. Give your customers more choice.

Finally, to IBM, here’s a big idea for you. You say that you don’t want to pay all those RHEL developers? Here’s how you can save money: just pull from us. Become a downstream distributor of Oracle Linux. We will happily take on the burden.”

And what’s this got to do with telco?

While this move will cause concern throughout the community, it has specific implications for the telecoms sector which is increasingly coming to rely on open source infrastructure in the form of Linux and Kubernetes. There is also a greater reliance on tight integration of components which benefits significantly from open nature of this community

Well, as you may be aware, telcos are investigating or in many cases already moving network function software into cloud native infrastructure. This requires an operating system and cloud environment that operators are hoping will be cheaper than locked-in vendor alternatives, as well as consistent and open. The Linux OS of choice is at the core of that.

If you have have heard Rocky Linux on TMN before it is in an article we published last October, where we explained that Rakuten Mobile was ditching Red Hat as the provider of its Linux based OS for the edge cloud that supports its mobile network, and instead is deploying Rocky Linux OS, from open source distributor CIQ.

At that time, Rakuten CTO Tareq Amin said that he decided to move away from Red Hat when that company’s business model changed following its acquisition by IBM.

“We had a big divergence on the business model…  [Red Hat] did not meet the cost and economics that I’m looking for.” He also said that with Red Hat announcing that they will no longer have the open source variant of CentOS anymore, “they are going into a subscription model, and that did not fit well with what Open RAN is all about.”

And so with telcos such as Rakuten assessing alternatives to Red Hat, it is therefore not great news for them if IBM’s further moves make it difficult for these companies to continue to exist. We are already seeing their “alternatives” start to react.

SUSE and Rocky continue on

This week, reacting to IBM/ red Hat’s position, SUSE said that it would “preserve choice in enterprise Linux” by forking RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) to “develop and maintain a RHEL-compatible distribution available to all without restrictions”. It said it would invest more than $10 million into this project over the next few years.

SUSE is committed to working with the open source community to develop a long-term, enduring compatible alternative for RHEL and CentOS users. SUSE plans to contribute this project to an open source foundation, which will provide ongoing free access to alternative source code.

It said it had already started collaborating with Rocky Linux. CEO of CIQ, and founder of Rocky Linux, Gregory Kurtzer said, “CIQ is bringing stability to our partners, customers, and community, by building a broad coalition of like-minded companies, organizations, and individuals. SUSE has embodied the core principles and spirit of open source; CIQ is thrilled to collaborate with SUSE on advancing an open enterprise Linux standard.”

SUSE’s Dr. Thomas Di Giacomo, SUSE’s Chief Technology and Product Officer told TMN:“While this move will cause concern throughout the community, it has specific implications for the telecoms sector which is increasingly coming to rely on open source infrastructure in the form of Linux and Kubernetes. There is also a greater reliance on tight integration of components which benefits significantly from open nature of this community.

“This infrastructure is stronger for the collaboration of the open source community and we do not believe that restricting access to source is a positive direction for the industry to take. The core of our business is that our customers do not pay for open source code, they pay for the ability to run it with confidence in business critical scenarios and we’ve always sought to compete on that basis rather than by restricting access to code.

“SUSE remains committed to the open source ecosystem, to the openSUSE community and projects, as well as to the SUSE Linux Enterprise family. In addition, we will also invest in building and delivering a fork of RHEL to the community to ensure that an unrestricted option remains available. Our intent is to contribute this project to an open source foundation and we are keen to work with the wider community to shape the future of this project.”

But Red Hat, in a statement to TMN, denied external interpretations of its intention and likely outcome.

Gunnar Hellekson, VP/GM, RHEL at Red Hat, provided the following comment:
“I want to reiterate that, despite the perception being pushed by some, Red Hat remains fully committed to honoring our open source license obligations and delivering, openly and transparently, the source code that we use to build ALL of our products. For Red Hat Enterprise Linux in particular, this code is available in multiple places, including CentOS Stream which is an open window into how and what we use to build RHEL. We also deliver many RHEL sources through Red Hat Universal Base Image, which includes the dependencies and packages needed to build a containerized application that will run on RHEL but can also be distributed however and wherever the developer wants. These are just a few of the places that non-customers can access RHEL source code – we do expect all users of Red Hat subscription services to abide by the enterprise agreement which, again, does not supersede the GPL but acts in parallel with it.”

These comments mirrored those of Red Hat’s Mike McGrath, who published a follow up post to Red Hat’s initial anouncement. In this, he stated that Red Hat’s changes are really aimed at those who rebuild code without “adding value”. “Simply rebuilding code,” he said, “without adding value or changing it in any way, represents a real threat to open source companies everywhere.”

As this plays our, telcos will need to assess where the real threat lies, and if it points at them.