How Can I Justify Using Red Hat When CentOS Exists?

This is the kind of open-ended discussion I truly love to see and on a topic I care deeply about.    Originally posted HERE, a Slashdot reader asked a candid question about how Open Source (free) software is treated in the business community.

“I recently spec’d out a large project for our company that included software from Red Hat. It came back from the CIO with everything approved except I have to use CentOS. Why? Because ‘it’s free Red Hat.’ Personally I really like the CentOS project because it puts enterprise class software in the hands of people who might not otherwise afford it. We are not those people. We have money. In fact, I questioned the decision by asking why the CIO was willing to spend money on another very similar project and not this one. The answer was ‘because there is no free alternative.’ I know this has come up before and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but this is still a very persistent issue. Our CIO is convinced that technical support for any product is worthless. He’s willing to spend money on ‘one-time’ software purchases, but nothing that is an annual subscription. There is data to support that the Red Hat subscription is cheaper that many other up-front paid software products but not CentOS. The only thing it lacks is support, which the CIO doesn’t want. Help?”

First, understand that Open Source software that is licensed under many of the open source or commons licenses require the source code be made freely available for others to use at will.  That’s particularly true for software that is licensed under versions of the GNU General Public License.  Someone new to “Open Source”, of someone unfamiliar with it at all might look somewhat incredulously at that statement and wonder if I wasn’t hopped up on some stimulant.  But I assure you I’m not.  The GPL license is intended to enable the free use of code, and for those who use and modify licensed code, to enable others to use those modifications as well.  There are several variations of open source licenses, but that’s the general gist of most of them.  And that essential nature is vastly different from restrictedly licensed commercial software.  In the case being asked about, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is GPL’ed software and is available for free in the form of source code from Red Hat.  Red Hat also sells the software, or more accurately, sells support of the software.  You can choose to purchase Red Hat support, with all of the resources that come along with that, or you can choose to go it alone by downloading the source code for Red Had and compile it on your own.

You can also choose to use one of the other available Red Hat clones like CENTOS, Scientific Linux, or even ORACLE Linux.  Each of those organizations obtained the Red Hat source code, modified it, compiled it and made it available for others.  In the case of Oracle, they’re selling it with support just as Red Hat is doing.  Make sure you understand that – essentially selling Red Hat Enterprise Linux re-branded with Oracle support.  CENTOS and Scientific are free community maintained clones and I’m sure there are numerous others too.

The original poster has a major project he’s seeking approval for and has been told by his CIO that it is approved, but only if the project utilizes CENTOS.  Ignoring the fact that the project could still have used Red Hat if one of the IT staff downloaded the source code and compiled it, the question from the poster is “should they”.  He’s very clearly leaning toward use of Red Hat because he wants the support and doesn’t believe in using something of value for free.  In his words, the company can afford it and is looking for justification from the community to fight back against the CIO’s demand.  Excellent question and very germane to what Open Source is all about.

I feel very strongly about Open Source and personally prefer using Open Source software over commercially licensed software whenever feasible.  I work for a very large International corporation, performing Information Technology consulting work and currently work on a federal government contract performing enterprise network services.  The question of using commercially licensed or open source software is one I see if not on a weekly basis, is one I see extremely often.  I regularly argue for use of Open Source alternatives to commercially licensed software, but rarely win those debates.  That rarely dissuades me from trying again the next time but unexpectedly or not, on the posters question I have mixed feelings.

If the project in question was a personal project I would likely use CENTOS or compile Red Hat myself and use it for free.  But for commercial use, and particularly for use in forward facing, customer related applications or systems I would want to purchase Red Hat support.  The posters question is one that definitely calls into question the best aspects of the Open Source community as well as what many people see as its primary problem and yet I don’t think, at the end of the day, it’s really the question the community needs to answer.  In his case he needs to understand, and clearly point out to his CIO, what you give up by using CENTOS and what you don’t give up by using supported Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Some of the commenters do in fact point that out to him and I can only add my voice to those assessments.  What happens if those systems encounter a problem or there is a major security bug that is discovered?  Are you likely to get needed support, if at all, from CENTOS?  Would a bug fix or security update be released by CENTOS within a reasonable period of time?  Can your business really gamble with questions of that nature?

Beyond that the Open Source community doesn’t really have an answer for the points I raised.  There are those on both sides of the debate, one side who doesn’t believe there is a distinction between commercial businesses using freely available software (and the work of others) for profit, and another side that does.  I don’t personally see it in quite so stark a light but generally believe that we need to understand there is a larger context we need to operate within.  And that context is that the Open Source community has given us all a tremendous amount of service, support, and value and we should exercise great care that we don’t damage that community.

[Edit] You can in fact download the full, compiled version of Enterprise Linux 6 Beta from Red Hat’s FTP server.  Not just the uncompiled source packages, which will save you a LOT Of time and effort initially if you don’t mind starting at the Beta.

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