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Red Hat’s CentOS “acquisition” good for both sides, but ‘ware the Jabberwock

Red Hat and CentOS announced earlier this week (in the respective links) they are “joining forces” — whatever that means. Let’s explore the announcements and implications to get a better understanding of what’s happening, why, and what it means for the future of RHEL, Fedora, and CentOS.

LWN made some excellent points in its writeup (emphasis and links mine):

The ownership of the CentOS trademarks, along with the requirement that the board have a majority of Red Hat employees makes it clear that, for all the talk of partnership and joining forces, this is really an acquisition by Red Hat. The CentOS project will live on, but as a subsidiary of Red Hat—much as Fedora is today. Some will disagree, but most would agree that Red Hat’s stewardship of Fedora has been quite good over the years; one expects its treatment of CentOS will be similar. Like with Fedora, though, some (perhaps large) part of the development of the distribution will be directed by Red Hat, possibly in directions others in the CentOS community are not particularly interested in.

Plenty of benefits to go around

Whether it’s the rather resource-strapped CentOS gaining more access to people and infrastructure, not to mention those pesky legal threats, or Red Hat bringing home a community that strayed since it split Red Hat Linux and created RHEL/Fedora in 2002–3, the benefits are clear to both sides.

I’m not convinced it had to go nearly as far as it did to realize those benefits, though — formalizing a partnership would have sufficed. However, giving three of the existing lead developers the opportunity to dedicate full-time effort to CentOS will be a huge win, as well the other resources Red Hat is providing around infra, legal, etc. But the handover of the trademark and the governance structure are a bit unusual for the benefits as explained, although entirely unsurprising for an acquisition and company ownership of an open-source project.

What about Fedora?

It’s worth reading what Robyn Bergeron, the Fedora Project Leader, said on the topic.

Red Hat still needs a breeding ground for innovation of the Linux OS, so I don’t see anything significant changing here. What I would hope to see over time is a stronger integration of developers between Fedora and CentOS such that it’s easy to maintain packages in both places if you desire.

Perhaps the largest concern for Fedora is a lessening of Red Hat employees contributing to it on paid time, in the longer term. As the company pivots more toward cloud infrastructure (see its recent appointment of Tim Yeaton and Craig Muzilla to lead groups that own cloud software at Red Hat) with a clear hope of increasing its cloud revenue share, Red Hat’s need to differentiate at the OS level may shrink and thus its need to contribute as many resources to Fedora. However, Robyn duly points out that Fedora’s role as upstream for RHEL isn’t going anywhere, so neither is the project.

The hidden BDFL

Red Hat’s Karsten Wade seems to have become the closest thing there is to a CentOS BDFL (or at least an avatar of Red Hat as BDFL) by virtue of being the “Liaison” on the newly created governing board. The other named board role is Chair, who is a coordinator and “lead voice” but cannot take decisions for the board as the liaison can. In case you didn’t see the fine print, here’s the reason I say that:

The Liaison may, in exceptional circumstances, make a decision on behalf of the Board if a consensus has not been reached on an issue that is deemed time or business critical by Red Hat if: (1) a board quorum (i.e., a majority) is present or a quorum of Board members has cast their votes; or (2) after 3 working days if a Board quorum is not present at a meeting or a quorum has not cast their votes (list votes); provided that the Chair may (or at the request of the Liaison, will) call a meeting and demand that a quorum be present.

Unless the Liaison specifically indicates on a specific issue that he/she is acting in his/her official capacity as Liaison, either prior to a vote or later (e.g., after an issue has been deemed time or business critical), the Liaison’s voice and vote is treated the same as any other member of the Board. Decisions indicated as Liaison decisions made on behalf of the Board by the Liaison may not be overturned.

Translation? If the board (the majority of which is Red Hat employees) can’t come to a consensus or can’t meet/vote within 3 days, the Red-Hat–appointed liaison can make an irrevocable, unilateral decision on behalf of Red Hat. Also worth noting is that Karsten will be the direct manager of the three CentOS employees joining Red Hat, giving him further influence in both formal and informal forms. Although whoever’s in the liaison role theoretically steps down in power when not acting as liaison, this is much like temporarily removing “operator” status on IRC. Everyone knows you’ve got it and could put it back on at any point in time, so every word you say carries much more weight. It is therefore of great interest to understand Karsten more deeply.

He’s got a long history in community management with Red Hat and I’ve had excellent experiences working with him in the Google Summer of Code and many other venues, so I’m confident in his abilities and intentions in this regard. But it’s definitely worthwhile to read his take on the news and understand where he’s coming from. Here’s an excerpt:

 In that time, Red Hat has moved our product and project focus farther up the stack from the Linux base into middleware, cloud, virtualization, storage, etc., etc. … Code in projects such as OpenStack is evolving without the benefit of spending a lot of cycles in Fedora, so our projects aren’t getting the community interaction and testing that the Linux base platform gets. Quite simply, using CentOS is a way for projects to have a stable-enough base they can stand on, so they can focus on the interesting things they are doing and not on chasing a fast-moving Linux.

In other words, they were putting code directly into RHEL that hadn’t had a chance to bake in Fedora first, which is less than ideal for an enterprise distro. Thus the need for a place to test higher-level software on stable platforms (CentOS).

That post makes it perfectly clear where Karsten’s interests lie, so it, along with his background in community management is what drives my initial expectations of Red Hat’s influence upon CentOS. It remains to be seen how often Karsten will need to step up to liaison mode, and to what extent his actions in that role will be handed down from higher up in Red Hat vs independent, so I’m looking forward to seeing how these changes play out.

 Disclosure: Red Hat is a client.

by-sa

Categories: community, linux, operating-systems, red-hat.