CentOS shifts from “Red Hat, unbranded” to “Red Hat, beta”
December 10, 2020
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Looks like CentOS Linux will be sleeping with the fishes.
Enlarge / Looks like CentOS Linux will be sleeping with the fishes.

Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

On Tuesday, Red Hat CTO Chris Wright and CentOS Community Manager Rich Bowen each announced a massive change in the future and function of CentOS Linux. Moving forward, there will be no CentOS Linux—instead, there will (only) be CentOS Stream.

Originally announced in September 2019, CentOS Stream serves as “a rolling preview of what’s next in RHEL”—it’s intended to look and function much like a preview of Red Hat Enterprise Linux as it will be a year or so in the future.

What’s a CentOS, anyway?

CentOS—which is short for Community Enterprise Linux Operating System—was founded in 2004. CentOS’ first 2004 release was named version 2—to coincide with then-current RHEL 2.1. Since then, each major version increment of RHEL has resulted in a corresponding new major version of CentOS, following the same versioning scheme and built largely from the same source.

Traditional CentOS is a free-as-in-beer rebuilding of the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) operating system, built from RHEL’s own source code—but with Red Hat’s proprietary branding removed and without Red Hat commercial support. This allowed CentOS to enjoy guaranteed binary compatibility with “proper” RHEL.

As a non-paywalled, no-hassles version of RHEL, CentOS appealed to a broader market of developers, tinkerers, and others who might eventually decide to upgrade to commercially supported RHEL. It also made it easier for developers to build and manage dev environments that would be guaranteed-compatible to their commercially supported RHEL production environments.

Red Hat acquired CentOS in 2014

Although CentOS was and is a wildly popular distribution—for a couple of years, it was the most commonly used Web server distro in the world—it suffered its share of community struggles. CentOS founder Lance Davis drifted away from the project—but retained control of its domains and financials—in 2008. A year later, the CentOS team made contact with Davis and regained control of the project, but this didn’t entirely repair significant damage to public perception of CentOS.

In 2014, the CentOS development team still had a distribution with far more marketshare than resources. So when Red Hat offered to partner with the CentOS team in production of the distribution, the deal looked good to both sides. Red Hat gained control of an entity it saw as coloring the reputation of its own brand, and CentOS developers got Red Hat jobs allowing them to work on CentOS full time while still keeping the lights on.

Part of the deal involved a new governance board for CentOS—one with a mandatory, permanent Red Hat majority. Although the new deal was marketed as a partnership, it was an acquisition in all but name—Red Hat now both funded and controlled CentOS.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the perennially resource-starved distribution. Red Hat funding meant more dev hours and fewer hassles—and being brought in-house gave CentOS access to RHEL’s legal team and a guarantee that any further questions of trademark use could be resolved amicably, rather than with simmering hostilities.

This put CentOS in much the same position as Fedora—a “community” distribution that was, nevertheless, effectively a Red Hat property in all but name. To be fair to Red Hat, the company is widely and accurately considered an excellent steward for the Fedora Project; and for the next several years, it was for the renewed CentOS project as well.

Goodbye CentOS Linux, hello CentOS Stream

The current version of CentOS is CentOS 8, itself built atop RHEL 8. Normally, CentOS enjoys the same ten-year support lifecycle as RHEL itself—which would give CentOS 8 an end-of-life date in 2029. This week’s announcement puts a headstone on CentOS 8’s grave much sooner, in 2021. (CentOS 7 will still be supported alongside RHEL 7, through 2024.)

Current CentOS users will need to migrate either to RHEL itself or to the newer CentOS Stream project, originally announced in September 2019. The distribution FAQ states that CentOS Stream will not be “the RHEL beta test platform”—but CentOS Community Manager Rich Bowen’s own announcement describes Stream as “the upstream (development) branch of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.”

The line between “development branch” and “beta version” strikes us as vanishingly thin, and it seems to strike many CentOS community members the same way. The comments on the community announcement are legion and are overwhelmingly negative.

Red Hat’s own corporate announcement doesn’t share those negative comments—likely because it has no comment section in the first place. Red Hat CTO Chris Wright takes a more direct stab at what the company expects CentOS Stream to be—and explicitly declares that it will not be a replacement for CentOS Linux.

CentOS Stream isn’t a replacement for CentOS Linux; rather, it’s a natural, inevitable next step intended to fulfill the project’s goal of furthering enterprise Linux innovation. Stream shortens the feedback loop between developers on all sides of the RHEL landscape, making it easier for all voices, be they large partners or individual contributors, to be heard as we craft future versions of RHEL.

Wright goes on to state that Red Hat will move its own internal projects to CentOS Stream, neatly backstopping Bowen’s description of it as the “development branch” of RHEL itself. He gives examples of large enterprise partners enthusing about Stream.

Facebook, Wright says, is now migrating its millions of servers to an OS the company derives from CentOS Stream and “continues to drive internal innovation on CentOS Stream” while having “recognized the value in collaborating within the Red Hat platform.” He also quotes a bland endorsement from an Intel VP, stating that Intel is “excited about the potential of CentOS Stream within our customer ecosystem.”

Wright ends Red Hat’s announcement with a section titled “building a broader, more diverse community”—but community, at least in the traditional open source sense, seems to be exactly what’s missing from this initiative. His closing statement—”Red Hat intends to provide the tools, support, and expertise to help all use cases transition to the new innovation hub for RHEL”—sounds well-intended, but we suspect it will hit most CentOS Linux users as just what it is—a top-down corporate initiative rather than a true community outreach.

A possible rebirth as Rocky Linux

CentOS co-founder Greg Kurtzer is one of the many community members who isn’t happy about Red Hat’s decision to shutter CentOS Linux. Prior to CentOS, Kurtzer ran a Red Hat rebuild project called Caos Linux. Kurtzer’s work merged with that of Rocky McGough and Lance Davis to form the CentOS Project.

Kurtzer issued the following press statement Wednesday:

I was just as shocked as the rest of the community with the news from Red Hat. When I started CentOS 16 years ago, I never imagined the incredible reach and impact it would have around the world on individuals and companies who rely on CentOS for Linux distribution.

In response to this unexpected shift, I am proud to announce the launch of a new project, Rocky Linux, in honor of my late CentOS co-founder Rocky McGough. I’ve started calling on participation from the global community and quickly assembling a team to further our founding commitment of ensuring seamless continuity of business operations for companies running CentOS 8 far beyond 2021. In just one day, we’ve seen an overwhelming response from thousands of supporters eager to join the project.

For the moment, Rocky Linux is nothing but a name and a determination—its Github repo currently boasts two commits, both to README.md. But Kurtzer’s name adds considerable weight to the project as a concept, along with the several thousand signatures an unrelated petition to CentOS’ governing board accumulated in a few hours.

It seems likely that the same market pressures that drove the original creation of CentOS will likely drive its rebirth as a once-again independent community project.

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