Originally published July 20, 2006
Open source software companies are in a strange business: they don't usually own exclusive rights to publish the open source software they sell, and many have little or nothing to do with the development of much of the software they sell. Also, by definition, anyone can download their product – open source software – for free. So how does a company like Red Hat win new customers when anyone, including their potential customers and competitors, can get the source code to Red Hat's flagship product, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)? And why is that an advantage, not a problem?
Enterprise OS or Commercial Linux?
Red Hat, Inc., publishes and sells RHEL, an operating system suitable for use as an enterprise OS; versions of RHEL can be used on desktops or servers. RHEL, like any Linux distribution, is based on the Linux kernel and uses a multitude of other software to perform all OS functions, as well as numerous application software packages. All are published under open source licenses. To comply with those licenses, Red Hat must do several things: make the source code to the software freely available, permit their customers to redistribute that source code, and allow them to modify and distribute those programs under a compatible license (that is, an open source license).
Red Hat sells RHEL by subscription: the annual fee is up to $299 per workstation, and up to $2,499 per server. If that seems a high price to pay for “free” software, remember that Red Hat sells much more than just the software:
Most important to enterprise customers, Red Hat provides consistency and stability in the form of a long and predictable product cycle. They guarantee continued support for each of their releases for a full seven years, so you're not subjected to unexpected or forced upgrade cycles.
Because Red Hat must publish the source code to their distributions, anyone can (theoretically) download those sources and install RHEL for free. In practice, it is not quite that easy: unlike most other Linux publishers (commercial or not-for-profit), Red Hat does not publish ISO images of installation media. So while you can download and burn your own set of CDs to install other Linux distributions, you must go through more trouble to install RHEL without paying Red Hat.
While Red Hat must abide by the licenses of the software they incorporate into RHEL by publishing source code, they are not obliged to make it easy for others to re-create or try their flagship product at no charge. In this they are very different from other vendors selling Linux commercially. For example, SUSE publishes burnable installation ISOs for free and evaluation distributions. Mandriva waits for a few weeks after releasing new versions before it publishes them online. Xandros Desktop Linux is also available online for free but as a limited Open Circulation Edition for personal use only.
If Red Hat is a Linux vendor, its behavior is considerably different from that of other Linux vendors. In fact, the most significant word in the product name “Red Hat Enterprise Linux” is “Enterprise” rather than “Linux”. Red Hat isn't really competing against SUSE or Mandriva, but rather against Microsoft, Sun, IBM and other enterprise software vendors.
Red Hat Freebies and Clones
Red Hat does do a great deal for the open source software community, and they give away some of the software they've developed in different forms. The RHEL distribution is not no-cost, but Red Hat sponsors an alternate distribution called Fedora Core. While the RHEL distribution is updated more cautiously and supported longer, as is appropriate for enterprise software, Fedora Core distribution updates are published much more frequently and become obsolete more quickly. Fedora Core serves as a beta program/test bed of sorts for Red Hat. Its stated goal is to incorporate newer, cutting-edge technologies that haven't yet been deemed stable for the enterprise.
But let's go back to Red Hat's enterprise OS. If you know all the pieces that go into RHEL and if you can download all the source code, what stops you from compiling them and creating a clone of RHEL? You'd have a functionally identical Linux distribution, but you would have paid nothing to Red Hat.
The only barriers to RHEL cloning are the tasks of downloading and compiling the source code into an installable form. Cloners must also strip out all of Red Hat's proprietary content – logos and other copyrighted references to the company itself – as well as any non-open or proprietary software that Red Hat includes with their distributions.
Thus, if you want the functional equivalent of RHEL without paying for the installation media – and, of course, without access to any of Red Hat's support services – you can get it at little or no cost from one of several RHEL-cloning projects, including:
Why Red Hat Doesn't Mind
Traditionally, publishers of software (and other kinds of content) have treated people who use their product without paying for it as copyright infringers – criminals. Red Hat can afford to be complacent about the RHEL clone projects for a number of reasons. Most importantly, Red Hat has no choice: they are obligated by the terms of the licenses of the software they package. Red Hat even acknowledges that some of those who try out an RHEL clone distribution will eventually decide to become paying customers. The clones help Red Hat in other ways:
Can Red Hat, a company that provides little more than open source software bundling services plus support, really compete with proprietary software vendors who have the option of taking Red Hat's own flagship product and selling the same type of package themselves? Earlier this year, Larry Ellison shook the Linux world with casual talk about Oracle selling their own Linux distribution.
Oracle could easily reproduce the RHEL product, as CentOS and others do, and bundle their own proprietary as well as open source product lines with support. In fact, it offers an even better value proposition – but only if Oracle is able to deliver support and other value-adds to make it worthwhile to their customers. While cloning RHEL and rebranding it as “Oracle Linux” may be the cheapest way to go, a friendly cooperation between Oracle and Red Hat could result in the first credible competition that Microsoft has faced in many years.
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