What's CoreOS? An existential threat to Linux vendors

By changing the meaning of a Linux distribution, CoreOS is making life difficult for Red Hat, Canonical, and the rest

Open source has never been shy about eating its young -- or, in the case of CoreOS, its old.

While sometimes dismissed as the newest entrant in the "just enough operating system" pageant, CoreOS threatens to displace incumbent Linux distributions with a minimalist approach that seeks to emulate how Google and other Web companies manage distributed systems. CoreOS uses Docker to handle the addition and management of applications and services on a system.

Indeed, by changing the very definition of the Linux distribution, CoreOS is an "existential threat" to Red Hat, Canonical, and Suse, according to some suggestions. The question for Red Hat in particular will be whether it can embrace this new way of delivering Linux while keeping its revenue model alive.

A Linux for developers

Linux vendors, particularly Red Hat, have built their businesses on meeting the needs of operations professionals. Developers, as I wrote recently, have been a secondary concern.

That strategy worked great while operations ruled, but as developers have increasingly taken control, the ops-first strategy looks increasingly suspect. Indeed, Gartner estimates that 38 percent of total IT spend comes from outside IT today, and will balloon to 50 percent by 2017 as lines of business take more responsibility for their systems.

In this new developer-centric world, it's worrisome that incumbent Linux distributions have yet to deliver a first-class, modern developer experience. As one industry observer who prefers not to be named told me:

Red Hat Enterprise Linux is what you create when you ask ops people what they want from an operating system. Ubuntu is what you get when you ask ops what they think their devs want from an OS. CoreOS is what you get when you ask the developers what they want in an OS.

When I pressed him on what he meant by that last sentence, he elaborated:

CoreOS is the first cloud-native OS to emerge. It is lightweight, disposable, and tries to embed devops practices in its architecture. RHEL has always been about adding value by adding more. CoreOS creates value by giving you less [see the cattle vs. pets analogy]. If the enterprise trend is toward webscale IT, then CoreOS will become more popular with ops too.

Early adoption of CoreOS suggests that developers are quite happy with a Linux service that includes "nothing" by default, thereby diminishing the value of a distribution assembled by Red Hat, Canonical, or Suse.

The question is whether ops follows suit, embracing a model that bakes security and management (or lack thereof) into Linux as a service. This is a major departure from how traditional Linux distributions function, as CoreOS co-founder and CEO Alex Polvi recently tweeted: "On RHEL [updates] are automatically *available*, on CoreOS they are automatically applied. Major difference."

This difference means that developers turn over the bother of updating the OS to CoreOS. In exchange they get the promise of ironclad security. Ultimately, as Polvi told me over email, this means "the base OS does not matter anymore" because all base OSes effectively look the same.

Red Hat goes Atomic on CoreOS

Clearly CoreOS is onto something. Also as clearly, Red Hat is determined not to be undermined by it.

To counter the CoreOS threat, Red Hat has released Project Atomic, which -- not surprisingly -- isn't ready to kiss Red Hat's Linux influence good-bye:

An Atomic Host is a lean operating system designed to run Docker containers, built from upstream CentOS, Fedora, or Red Hat Enterprise Linux RPMs. It provides all the benefits of the upstream distribution, plus the ability to perform atomic upgrades and rollbacks — giving the best of both worlds: A modern update model from a Linux distribution you know and trust.

In other words, Project Atomic is designed to deliver all the benefits of CoreOS -- including the ability to deploy and manage Docker containers sans a full Linux distribution -- without sacrificing the OS to which users have grown accustomed. This isn't transformational in itself, as InfoWorld's Serdar Yegulalp posits.

But what is big is this new emphasis on developers by the Linux giant. While Red Hat has been slow to wean itself from its dependence on ops and RHEL, Project Atomic and similar endeavors demonstrate a willingness to think outside the box ... and inside the Docker container. It's what developers demand and may be enough to stave off the CoreOS threat.