Red Hat Linux without the Red Hat

December 03, 2009 1:38 PM EST
Red Hat is the number one Linux company on the planet by a wide margin. Their flagship distribution, RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), is great, and they have excellent technical support. That hasn't stopped other companies from trying to ride on their coattails, and lately more businesses are adopting Red Hat's Linux code base and offering support for it.

Why would anyone want to do this? After all, Red Hat support doesn't cost you an arm and a leg. The first developers who used Red Hat Linux as the foundation for their own distributions -- CentOS, StartCom and White Box Enterprise Linux -- created distributions for people who were richer in Linux expertise than they were in money. Thus, historically, RHEL clone users tend to be old Linux pros who didn't need much in the way of Red Hat handholding.

According to a report by Sean Michael Kerner, Red Hat isn't worried about these users. Kerner quotes Red Hat's Marco Bill-Peter, VP of Global Support Services: "We are not actively chasing users of CentOS, but rather find that enterprises are naturally turning to Red Hat for the value of the Red Hat subscription model and support."

That isn't stopping other companies from trying to horn in on Red Hat's support business. On December 1st, OpenLogic, an open-source enterprise-software-support company announced that it would sell low-cost support packages for CentOS. OpenLogic also plans to expand its support to other community Linux distributions in 2010.

OpenLogic's logic for this move, according to a statement by CEO Steve Grandchamp, is that "Our unique cost-effective support model enables companies to get commercial support for open source software while still maintaining the significant cost advantages." In other words, they can support a RHEL-like Linux for less money than Red Hat can support RHEL.

I see OpenLogic as appealing to businesses with enough Linux experience in-house not to move up to RHEL, but not enough that they feel comfortable going it on their own. I'll be interested to see if there are enough such companies for OpenLogic to make a go of it with this plan.

Novell takes this approach a step further. Through its SUSE Linux Enterprise with Expanded Support plan, Novell will support you for up to three years on RHEL or CentOS as, they hope, you migrate to SUSE Linux.

Oracle, of course, takes this strategy the furthest of all. With its OEL (Oracle Enterprise Linux), Oracle essentially cloned RHEL and offers a similar support plan.

Still other Linux vendors (like Concurrent) use RHEL as the basis for their own special purpose Linux distributions. For example, Concurrent just released a new version of its real-time RHEL variation, RedHawk Embedded Linux 5.4 for embedded computer device developers.

So why does Red Hat "let" this happen when Apple runs a legal bulldozer over Psystar for selling PCs with Mac OS X pre-installed? It's partly because Red Hat really buys into open source. They'd rather help make a bigger open pie for everyone rather than keep one small proprietary pie all to itself.

Another, purely pragmatic reason is that Red Hat's business model works smoothly with its development model. Red Hat, in short, makes big bucks with its comprehensive support plans. Neither Oracle nor Novell have made much of a dent in its RHEL business, and if people want to run CentOS, with or without the help of OpenLogic, that's fine with Red Hat.

Some people can talk all they want about how open source isn't really the way to run a business and how Red Hat is the exception and not the rule for open-source businesses. But the fact remains: despite competition from tiny businesses to multi-billion dollar corporations, Red Hat continues to prove that open source makes both a great way to develop software and to run a business.