Universities reconsider Red Hat

Red Hat Inc.’s decision to stop supporting its free Linux distribution has caused two Canadian universities to rethink their directions when it comes to the open source operating system.

Both the University of Toronto (U of T) and the University of Waterloo (UW) in Waterloo, Ont. are in the process of deciding whether to pay for Red Hat’s enterprise version or switch to other distributions such as Debian, or Red Hat’s new free Linux – Fedora Core 1.

“It came as no surprise to us that Red Hat was having a hard time selling free software,” said Ian Howard, Unix systems administrator, information systems and technology at UW. “But for the virtues of Linux, choosing to buy a vendor-supported version and having the overhead of administering licenses and subscriptions and the loss of the empowerment takes away the actual desire for using Linux in the first place.”

For the past four years UW has had versions of Red Hat Linux installed in some student workstation labs, and on servers that run production services. UW was already upset with Red Hat about its decision to only make Red Hat 9 available on CD when it was released.

“We provide, for free, mirrors for Red Hat. So all of the universities were a little [ticked] off because this was a service we provided to the company and all of a sudden they cut us off,” Howard said. Because of these changes, Howard suspects Red Hat’s popularity in the university computing world will decline. While UW 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 UW needed to use Oracle.

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

“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.

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 UW’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 Howard considers superior to comparable Red Hat offerings. “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.”

U of T also has to work around the changes to Red Hat’s licensing agreement and the company’s 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 U of T.

“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,” he said.

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

In the supported server environment, U of T will likely purchase the Red Hat Enterprise version, Jones said. However no firm decision will be made until the university has finished talking with Red Hat about any special support policies and packages the company would be willing to offer the school.

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