Oracle, SUSE Tussle with Red Hat over the Business of Open Source
There’s nothing like a good kerfuffle between tech giants, especially when it’s about something as near and dear to developers’ hearts as open source software development.
Which is probably why the ongoing controversy around Red Hat‘s decision to limit the availability of the source code to its flagship Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) distro. In short: Before, that source code would be available to anybody and everybody, leading to the proliferation of RHEL-compatible alternative Linux distros like Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux. Under Red Hat’s proposed new licensing terms — announced almost exactly four years after IBM’s $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat closed — RHEL’s source code will only be available to paying customers.
For an exact timeline, Tom Krazit offers a play-by-play recap over at the Runtime newsletter. Suffice it to say, however, that Red Hat’s decision was met with hostility from many in the open source community. Specifically, critics argue that taking what had been widely-available code and putting it behind what’s functionally a paywall is antithetical to the open source principles that Red Hat was founded in 1993 to support. The core tenet of open source, after all, is to share and share alike.
Red Hat, for its part, has defended the changes as a way to protect its business and pay its employees: “We have to pay the people to do that work — those passionate contributors grinding through those long hours and nights who believe in open source values,” Red Hat Vice President of Core Systems Mike McGrath wrote in a June blog post. Importantly, McGrath also reiterated that Red Hat will continue to use the CentOS Stream project as a place to share what’s essentially a preview of what’s to come in RHEL, though not the code for the current stable version.
Oracle and SUSE Taking Shots at Red Hat
That post was far from the end of the story, as Oracle and SUSE both stepped in this week to take their shots at reeling rival Red Hat.
In a blog post signed by execs Edward Screven and Wim Coekaerts, Oracle at once slammed Red Hat’s strategy and pushed forward its own Oracle Linux, a RHEL-compatible distro that it suggests would make a good alternative for jilted Red Hat customers. Oracle goes so far as to suggest that it’s IBM’s influence that led to the change, throwing cold water on the idea of it being a necessary business move.
“Interesting. 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 Oracle execs write.
More dramatically, Germany-based open source giant SUSE said that it will invest $10 million in building its own fork of RHEL, with plans to donate its code to a yet-to-be-determined foundation. Notably, it’ll be working with CIQ, the Linux support company that also sponsors the development of RHEL alternative Rocky Linux, to develop this new OS.
“This investment will preserve the flow of innovation for years to come and ensures that customers and community alike are not subjected to vendor lock-in and have a genuine choice tomorrow as well as today,” SUSE CEO Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen said in an official blog post, in a thinly-veiled reference to Red Hat.
Lots of Questions with No Easy Answers
The big question on the table, then, is what this all means for the future of open source development.
The whole fight is evocative of the open source discourse of 2019, when startups like Elastic and MongoDB adopted new licenses that made it more difficult for titans like Amazon or Tencent to release commercial products based on their code. The particulars are different — the fight this time is over release of the code itself, and Red Hat is much larger than the startups involved last time — but the existential issues raised are in many ways similar, in the sense that they hinge on the balance between open-source philosophy and cold, hard commercial reality.
In an interview with TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois published this week, Red Hat VP and General manager for Red Hat Enterprise Linux Gunnar Hellekson characterized the company’s previous habit of freely releasing RHEL’s code as tantamount to using Red Hat’s resources to support competitors. While he didn’t name names, he suggested that those like Oracle take Red Hat’s code, don’t do anything interesting or innovative with it, “put their own logo on it, and then go actively recruit my users to go use their version instead of mine,” in his words.
“In the open source community, this is bad behavior. It’s legal but it’s frowned upon. It’s counterproductive and not good for the ecosystem,” he told TechCrunch.
All of this has sparked a lot of what might be called spirited discussion in the open source community. Some, like Chef cofounder and System Initiative CEO Adam Jacob, have taken to Twitter to express skepticism that Oracle’s position is entirely out of the goodness of its heart. and to remind people that despite this round of bad press, Red Hat all but invented the modern open source business model. On the other hand, as Duckbill Group chief cloud economist and general IT raconteur Corey Quinn put it: “Do you have any idea just how far out of your way you have to go in your treatment of Open Source to have Oracle coming out looking like the better party?”
Ultimately, in the short term, Red Hat has a PR crisis to navigate. In the longer run, however, the company is raising the kinds of sticky issues around the monetization of open source that don’t have easy solutions. As much as open source code has become absolutely vital to the way the world works, the people who actually write it are struggling to find ways to get paid a living wage to write it. And while nobody is going to throw a charity benefit for Red Hat any time soon, the outcome of this current moment in open source is going to have considerable ramifications for how open source firms and the people who work there make money in the future.