Red Hat and CentOS: You scratch my back, I scratch yours

Q: Why would Red Hat want to work with the makers of a free community build of its own software? A: Lots of reasons

If you know Red Hat Enterprise Linux, odds are you know CentOS as well. It's known as the Red Hat you don't have to pay for, built from the same upstream sources as Red Hat and sporting many of Red Hat's features, but with support provided by a community rather than a commercial outfit.

Yesterday, CentOS and RHEL announced they were joining forces, though not in the sense of RHEL buying CentOS outright. As Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols put it in his piece on the topic: "Do Not Freak Out" (emphasis his). Rather, the two companies will now operate that much more closely, with Red Hat providing support to CentOS and with CentOS's community providing "a base for community adoption and integration of open source cloud, storage, network, and infrastructure technologies on a Red Hat-based platform."

It isn't as if CentOS and Red Hat alike won't have a broad audience for a revamped CentOS. The distribution is one of the most commonly used Linux distros among hosts, data centers, and cloud companies in big part because it's free, but also because it's built from known-good components and has yielded solid results.

The technical benefits of such a union are clear enough. What about the logistical ones?

First, and most obvious, is that Red Hat does itself no service by not taking advantage of the community available to it through the CentOS user pool. Red Hat has a captive audience among CentOS users for the very features in Red Hat that it's most drawn to, but who aren't always in a position to pay for a full Red Hat License to use. CentOS users can work as early adopters.

Second is how Red Hat might well have done this to avoid losing the CentOS community to a potential competitor. Oracle is the most obvious one since it redistributes Red Hat's source via its own Unbreakable Linux distribution. Forging an official alliance with CentOS means there's one less existing group of Red Hat devotees, users, adopters, and evangelists that might end up being drafted into the service of a direct competitor. Consider what would have happened if Oracle had performed this outreach, rather than Red Hat? (Given Oracle's less-than-stellar record with open source, it might well have been a disaster for all involved.)

Third: Red Hat can use a CentOS alliance to further shore up defenses against other commercial vendors of Linux. Besides Oracle, folks like Canonical come to mind. Open source aside, any commercial Linux vendor is always going to be interested in growing its market share, so having CentOS on Red Hat's side as a way to further draw future paying customers into the fold (via upgrades from CentOS to a full-blown RHEL paid license) is always a good thing.

What does this mean for the Fedora Project, which has typically served as a staging area for many features ultimately included in RHEL? Odds are Fedora will become the more desktop-focused project, while CentOS will be the place where the more cutting-edge server features get rolled out earlier for the audience that wants to deploy and use them. Robyn Bergeron, Fedora project leader, further stated: "The new relationship between Red Hat and the CentOS Project changes absolutely nothing about how the Fedora Project will work."

Last, but absolutely not least, CentOS already has a proposal in the works, called "variants," that would allow CentOS to be used by special-interest groups as a stable base on which to build highly specialized projects. This further hints at how CentOS would work as a garden from which any number of creative adaptations of RHEL could spring.

This story, "Red Hat and CentOS: You scratch my back, I scratch yours," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.


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