When Red Hat abruptly terminated support for the CentOS Linux distribution earlier this month, a large swath of users around the world were suddenly left without an option for enterprise-grade Linux. Now, the original creator of CentOS, Gregory Kurtzer, has kicked off a new distribution, Rocky Linux, to take up where CentOS left out, and even introduce a few of the painful lessons that Kurtzer has learned with his time on CentOS.
Rocky Linux will represent how “an open source project should be run, how it should be maintained, and how we can take precautions to make sure to make it is not only inclusively managed and stable, but also has the appropriate community promises necessary to ensure that things like what happened with CentOS won’t happen again,” Kurtzer said in a fascinating interview on the Changelog podcast.
CentOS began as an offshoot of a project started the early 2000s to create a community-based RPM Linux distro called CAOS Linux. At the time the project’s build system was built on Red Hat Linux, the precursor to today’s Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat shut down that massively popular distribution in 2003, leaving the Chaos Linux folks without a build system. One of the volunteers for the project, Rocky McGaugh, volunteered to build a new distribution based on RHEL. They named it CentOS, for “Community Oriented Enterprise Operating System,” and it immediately took off, dwarfing the Chaos Linux project in usership. (Rocky Linux takes its name from McGaugh, who has since passed on.)
“It was remarkable to watch this blow up, get so much visibility, and then to see how well it situated itself in the enterprise ecosystem and cloud ecosystem later,” Kurtzer said of CentOS.
Kurtzer left the project several years later, after being threatened with a trademark-infringement lawsuit by Red Hat. But today, CentOS is the third most widely used distribution on the Internet, powering 17.3% of all servers, according to W3Techs. It follows only Ubuntu (47.6%) and Debian (18.8%), and is far, far more pervasive than even RHEL itself, powering only 1.7% of all the sites.
Many have assumed that the reason Red Hat pulled CentOS was that it was competing too heavily on RHEL itself. Kurtzer does not harbor any ill feelings toward Red Hat, which has contributed immensely to the open source ecosystem. As a business, the company needs to make the right fiscal decisions, and, from this vantage, it couldn’t have its flagship RHEL service usurped by the free product, which has been maintained largely in-house by Red Hat engineers since the company assumed control of CentOS in 2014 (largely by taking over its board of directors, the way Kurtzer described it).
Still, in a sense, Red Hat has betrayed the roots of the “community enterprise” aspect of CentOS, Kurtzer argued. Its replacement, CentOS Streams, is based on what is still largely a future model of computing where the OS gets continually updated. Only a smaller portion of enterprises today are using this model, he said, noting that this approach is problematic for enterprises that need to verify and assess new software entering their systems.
Red Hat has also promised a replacement for CentOS in two free versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) for small production workloads and customer development teams. But these needs may not address the bulk of the usership that require a low-cost stable Linux distribution. Supercomputing labs and cash-strapped start-ups that need scalable infrastructure, for instance.
Gonna Fly Now
Upon hearing about CentOS’ pending demise late last year, Kurtzer first floated the idea of coming up with a replacement for his own clients using CentOS (he now runs high-performance computing startup Ctrl IQ).
The response was overwhelming. His Slack channels for the project quickly became overrun with messages, many from people looking to contribute. Now hundreds of people are working on Rocky Linux. A number of Special Interest Groups have already formed around particular use cases for the distro, including for laptop/desktop versions and for a minimal install variant for HPC workloads.
Rocky Linux is set to release by middle of this year, and promises to be “100% bug-for-bug compatible with Enterprise Linux.” The idea will be that a single command can migrate a CentOS instantiation to a Rocky Linux one, with all the underlying libraries and utilities remaining in tact. A dedicated team can ensure that work going forward will specifically benefit the enterprise-needs of users, such as achieving Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) compliance, which requires, among other things, a secure build system.
Ideally, Rocky will maintain a community focus and be led by a small core team. It is similar to the approach that CentOS took, but Kurtzer has learned much more about how to manage/support community-driven software projects. Also helping is that the tools around the build process have grown considerably more sophisticated and automated, compared to the early days of CentOS.
“Because there’s so many people, we’re having a great time. It feels like an underground movement, kind of just rising up right now,” Kurtzer said. “Everything is taking shape and people that want to become involved and want to do something like this are getting the opportunity to do something that’s really a differentiator.”
Listen to the whole interview here:
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