SAN FRANCISCO - Linux may be a free operating system, but the days of free copying may be numbered for Red Hat Inc. customers who, as of this spring, will no longer be able to receive support from Red Hat without purchasing a support license for every version of Red Hat's server software that they run.
The Raleigh, North Carolina, company sent a letter to its customers last week announcing that, effective April 30, 2004, it would cease maintenance of its other Linux product, Red Hat Linux 9. As of that date, Red Hat Enterprise Linux will be the only version of the server software available for purchase.
But Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which was designed as a more business-friendly successor to the traditional Red Hat Linux, comes with a different support contract than Red Hat Linux 9, one that some users say is in conflict with the spirit of Linux's software license: the GPL (GNU General Public License).
While the GPL lets users freely make as many copies of Linux as they like, Red Hat's services agreement compels customers to pay an annual per-system licensing fee in order to receive bug fixes, patches and technical support. The agreement also prohibits the unauthorized copying of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and grants Red Hat permission to conduct on-site software audits for a year after the support contract expires.
This new license model has some users up in arms. "I'm hearing more than a little discontentment from the open source community about Red Hat's approach to support and requiring limitations that are far more stringent than the GPL," said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with the IDC industry research firm based in Framingham.
Users are unhappy because, with the end of Red Hat Linux 9, they will no longer have the option of purchasing incident-based support plans that place no restrictions on the number of copies they can make. With Red Hat Enterprise Linux, customers must either pay the per-system fee, or seek support from somewhere else.
Red Hat says that its new licensing model makes support costs more predictable, but some users see it as a step backward.
"It's kind of odd that the most advanced operating system that we've got is using the worst financial model from the 1970s," said George Johnsen, the chief animation and technical officer with Threshold Digital Research Labs, a digital animation firm.
Johnsen, who is building a Linux-based image rendering facility in Threshold's Santa Monica, California, offices, compared Red Hat's licensing to the mainframe licensing model, saying that it was cumbersome and failed to take into account the economics of large scale computer users.
Johnsen is typical of a growing class of Linux users: customers who purchase a large number of identically configured commodity systems to process large amounts of data in areas such as petroleum exploration or scientific research, or to run a widely used "network edge" application like a Web or file and print server.
While many enterprise customers are content to pay the per-system licensing that accompanies Red Hat Enterprise Linux -- fees that run between $179 and $18,000 per system -- some customers, especially those who cluster together a large number of computers, are balking at adopting the fees.