Red Hat ends free download support

November arrived along with a slew of changes in the Linux community, including Novell Inc.’s acquisition of SuSE AG, an attack on the Linux kernel and Red Hat’s decision to stop supporting its free Red Hat 9 in the spring.

However, Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat has not completely abandoned the free software movement. It is currently spearheading The Fedora Project in tandem with the Linux community, a free Linux distribution meant to replace free Red Hat.

The first release, dubbed Fedora Core 1, was also launched in the first week of November. The project is designed so the user community can get involved in the development of Fedora, but Red Hat has the final say in the functionalities that end up in the release, and will take the functionality from Fedora and plug them into its Red Hat for the enterprise.

Red Hat’s announcements have prompted mixed reactions – from passionate to pragmatic – from individuals within the Linux community, which is made up of free software aficionados, business people and universities.

The University of Waterloo is one organization that is being affected by Red Hat’s change in business model. For the past four years the university had free versions of Red Hat Linux installed in some student workstation labs, and on servers that run production services. Red Hat’s announcement means the university will have to modify its infrastructure with respect to Linux.

The school was already unhappy with Red Hat’s decision to only make Red Hat 9 available on CD when it was released.

“We provide, for free, mirrors for Red Hat – we mirror its software. So all of us at the universities were a little pissed off because this was a service we provided to the company and all of a sudden they cut us off,” said Ian Howard, Unix systems administrator, information systems and technology at Waterloo.

“I think [Red Hat] will find, because of those things, and because it is forcing us into change, I think for the most part in the universities you’ll see it not gain as many customers as it might hope,” he added.

While the university still hasn’t made a concrete decision about where it intends to go with Linux, Howard said the only way the university would pay for Enterprise Linux is if it is forced to by an application – for example, if Waterloo needed to use Oracle.

The other options, he said, are to switch to Fedora or Debian, which already has a large install base at the university.

“A lot of people are saying that Debian has been in the business for many years and it has got to the stage where it is doing a really good job, so certain departments in the university have already chosen to go that way,” he said. Debian is an open source Linux project founded in 1993.

On the other hand, Howard said Fedora is starting to look a lot more like an RPM-based Debian, and considers it to be the natural path of migration for Waterloo’s Red Hat-based desktops. He said Fedora has tools Red Hat was lacking, such as Yellow Dog Update Manager (YUM) and APT-RPM, which are both packaging tools that are superior to Red Hat’s.

“While the Linux was strictly a Red Hat Linux, it was stuck with Red Hat tools,” he explained. “Now that it is a community project, it looks like it is able to choose the best, most prevalent tools. That is something that is in common with Debian.”

The University of Toronto also has to work around the changes Red Hat has made to its licensing agreement and its decision to end support for its free distributions. It is also considering moving to Debian.

“We have serious budget constraints, and there are a number of areas where we simply couldn’t afford to continue to use Red Hat at the supported cost prices,” said Terry Jones, IT analyst, computing and networking services at the university. “Many of those areas will be looking to switch to a different product – Debian being the common choice – but a number will go on with the current Red Hat and see how Fedora goes, and see what happens in the long run.”

The university employs Linux both in the desktop and server environments. While the university is still primarily a Windows shop, it uses Linux in certain departments including engineering, math and computer science, he said. The campus has virtually every version of Red Hat in use, and the bulk of the campus’ Red Hat users are using a free version, he added.

In the supported-server environment, the University of Toronto will likely purchase the Red Hat Enterprise version, Jones said. Yet no firm decision will be made until after the university has finished talking with Red Hat about its support policies and packages the Linux provider would be willing to offer the school.

Other Linux users are not only upset that Red Hat has decided to stop supporting the free operating system, but also that big companies like Novell and IBM Corp. are getting involved in the Linux market, saying the moves undermine the philosophy behind free software.

Shad Young, a Linux user who is an IT consultant and professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, said he finds involvement by big business in the Linux community rather disturbing, particularly as he has watched this involvement increase over the last three to four years.

“They’re trying to turn a low-cost operating system to their advantage to compete with Microsoft on a worldwide level,” he said.

While Young agrees that the strategies of Novell and Red Hat make good business sense, he thinks that they are bad for the community. He is concerned that large companies don’t fundamentally understand what free software is, specifically regarding its accessibility, and lack of patents and copyrights.

“Earlier when I was promoting Linux as a business solution, it was not so that companies could build distributions that could compete with Microsoft; it was so small- and medium-sized businesses could deploy services, maintain and build them on their own,” he said.

Young believes the open source community and big businesses will not be able to co-exist, and that in two or three years Linux will simply become another operating system like the Mac OS or Windows.

Cameron Robitaille, a networking specialist with Compel Technology Inc. in Toronto, thinks it was a smart idea on Red Hat’s part to move away from spending money to support a free download.

“Linux is still kind of a ‘geek’ operating system,” he said. “The majority of people either don’t have the knowledge or the motivation to download, install and configure an operating system like Linux. The people that do so typically have a purpose for doing so and the knowledge to use it in their desired solution.

“The user community is so huge that support should be easy enough to find on the Internet anyway,” he said.

For example, when Robitaille was using Red Hat 8 he had disk-formatting issues, but there was no help on Red Hat’s Web site. He found the answer on a community support list and fixed the issue.

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