RHEL and the attack of the clones

A short note on Red Hat’s recent decision to restrict access to RHEL source code …

What’s this all about?

In 2020, Red Hat stopped providing Centos as an upstream project to RHEL (near the beginning of the support cycle for v8). Considering that Centos was used as a binary-compatible version of RHEL by many projects and folk around the world, this was a huge blow to all of those using Centos).

But as the source was still available, a few new projects sprang up, rebuilding the source into new distributions (Alma, Rocky, etc.) that provided the same binary-compatible option.

Last week, Red Hat went one step further by limiting access to RHEL source code, to subscribers of RHEL, effectively breaking the efforts of downstream rebuilders.

The impact

There are many aspects to this story including GPL compliance, community trust, spirit of Open Source licensing, etc.

But I want to focus on 1 aspect specifically: Open Source as community.

Red Hat’s Mike McGrath has said:

“I feel that much of the anger from our recent decision around the downstream sources comes from either those who do not want to pay for the time, effort, and resources going into RHEL or those who want to repackage it for their own profit,” he wrote. “This demand for RHEL code is disingenuous.”

Red Hat seem to have lost sight of the fact that their RHEL project/product is based on the work of thousands of developers in the Open Source community (who don’t receive anything in return for their efforts). And while Red Hat gives back to the community through upstream improvements, it’s completely disingenuous of them to say that they’re expending “time, effort and resources” while not acknowledging the same “time, effort and resources” of the development work that they base their RHEL product on.

While Red Hat “may be” compliant with the applicable Open Source licensing in this regard, it is the intention and spirit of this change that goes to the heart of the Open Source discussion.

The future?

@rocky_linux have come out with some options to skirt around the issue and others are soon to follow, but based on Red Hat’s recent actions, RH are likely to take further steps to limit access to RHEL source code in response.

Instead of angering the community that Red Hat depends on, it should rather engage constructively to find solutions to their perceived issue of the “plundering” of RHEL. Community and discussion are the Open Source way.

Time will tell. But we might not be calling Red Hat an Open Source company in the future.

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