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Bad weather in the open-source world. It was already raining criticism on Red Hat’s announcement to put RHEL behind a paywall. The storm really seems to be brewing now, and SUSE is announcing to fork RHEL.

SUSE is going into battle with Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). It is doing so by brewing its own variant that is not continuously dependent on RHEL. SUSE is investing $10 million over the next few years to reinforce its commitment to this project. On Tuesday, the company published the plans in a blog.

SUSE is not abandoning its own distros. SUSE Linux Enterprise and openSUSE will continue to exist and evolve. At the same time, the software developer is building an alternative to RHEL together with the open-source community.

Red Hat raises bad blood

SUSE’s initiative does not come out of nowhere. Red Had set off bad blood last month by announcing it is making the RHEL source code private. Only the company’s enterprise customers will still have access.

Since Red Hat officially took over the development of CentOS Linux in 2014, the company has been restructuring its own enterprise offerings. An acquisition by IBM followed in 2019. “Red Hat’s acquisition by IBM represents an unparalleled milestone for open source itself. It signals validation of community-driven innovation and the value that open source brings to users,” shared the message at the time.

This was followed in 2020 by the announcement that CentOS would not be developed further, with CentOS Stream as the new offering. The latter will be the only repository for public RHEL-related source code releases. In June 2024, however, the company will completely withdraw its hands from CentOS 7, and the Linux distribution will receive its last update ever.

CentOS Stream was named as a “‘rolling preview’ of what will follow in RHEL.” The company cited good reasons for making this change, arguing that feedback from developers could flow through more quickly this way. But it also meant that CentOS and RHEL were no longer fully compatible and thus not ready to run in an enterprise environment. Businesses were obligated to redirect to the paid version of RHEL.

Or not. Independents responded by setting up their own redistributions. Rocky Linux and Alma Linux result from that and are bug-for-bug redistributions fully compatible with RHEL.

It rained criticism

According to several parties, Red Hat broke ties with the open-source community with its latest announcement. The announcement did not suit Oracle. The company accused IBM, Red Hat’s parent company, of wanting to kill competition. Various Linux distributions build on RHEL, and such redistributions’ innovation potential is now significantly limited. For example, Oracle itself has the redistribution Oracle Linux in its product line and argues that IBM’s decision will lead to bugs and incompatibilities.

According to Rocky Linux, however, the consequences are manageable. The company responded by guaranteeing that Rocky Linux can continue to exist. Furthermore, the company underscored its commitment to the open-source community, something SUSE also did in an earlier response.

The story gets a tail

SUSE is now more sharply expressing its anger (and that of the open-source community). Namely, it will fork the publicly available RHEL. That’s a term familiar to software developers and means that SUSE will start a new and independent project based on RHEL’s source code.

“For decades, collaboration and shared success have been the building blocks of our open-source community. We have a responsibility to defend these values. This investment will preserve the flow of innovation for years to come and ensures that customers and community alike are not subjected to vendor lock-in and have genuine choice tomorrow as well as today,” said Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen, CEO of SUSE, about the initiative.

Red Hat criticizes the criticism

According to the company that stirred up the storm, the reactions have been far exaggerated. We conclude this based on the response Gunnar Hellekson, vice president of RHEL, gave to TechCrunch. RHEL will remain accessible in no fewer than three ways, according to the company. First, through CentOS Stream, because that is where the company says everything from RHEL will eventually end up. Then there is Red Hat’s customer portal, which can only be accessed by the company’s customers. Finally, it can be accessed through git.centos.org.

The vice president even goes so far as to push the company into the victim’s position. He approaches the rise of Rocky Linux and Alma Linux as follows: “I run Red Hat Enterprise Linux, someone else comes along, takes my open-source project, claims bug-for-bug compatibility and in the process promises not to innovate on it at all, not to improve it in any way. Puts its own logo on it and then proceeds to actively encourage my users to use their version instead of mine. In the open-source community, this is bad behavior. It is legal, but it is frowned upon. It’s counterproductive and not good for the ecosystem.”

By putting RHEL behind a paywall, it has only set up its most prominent competitor to do the same thing Rocky Linux and Alma Linux did before. SUSE can now make this move without headwinds from the open-source community and attack a party that was already creating bad blood in this community.

Red Hat is now trying to reiterate its commitment to the open-source community through SUSE’s move: “A fork of Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a testament to the fact that we follow the spirit of open-source and that RHEL’s source code remains freely available to anyone who wants it,” Hellekson responded.

Those who disagree may address their criticisms directly to Red Hat in the future. Hellekson is helping to dispel rumors that Red Hat felt pressure from IBM: “This was a Red Hat decision. I’ve heard all kinds of theories about why this happened and the truth is that this was a Red Hat decision.”

Tip: With Red Hat killing off CentOS 7, where do organizations move to?