Last week, Red Hat announced it will now allow you to run Red Hat Enterprise Linux in production on up to 16 servers for free. The program, which begins on February 1, doesn't include technical support, but does include security patches and bug fixes. It’s a free RHEL offering meant to appease CentOS users, who were unhappy upon learning in December 2020 that Red Hat will end support for the popular free RHEL alternative at the end of this year. (Previously, users had been promised support through 2029.)
Users who want to continue using CentOS past December 31, 2021, must do a rollback to CentOS 7, which is still scheduled to be supported through 2024. In 2025, CentOS 7 will cease to exist as we know it, although it will continue as a new distribution called CentOS Stream.
Before last week's announcement, anyone who didn't want to roll back to the previous version of CentOS could either shop for another Linux distro, buy a support contract and switch to RHEL, or "upgrade" to CentOS Stream, which moves the operating system upstream to sit between Fedora, Red Hat's bleeding edge community distro, and RHEL. This, in effect, turns CentOS into a testing ground for RHEL's next version, instead of being the downstream copy of the distribution it had been for 16 years.
Since CentOS is sometimes used to run production workloads in company data centers, the prospect of turning their data centers into free RHEL test beds isn’t a welcome one. Red Hat understood this would happen going in, and when it announced the demise of CentOS, it promised to create new programs to address use cases traditionally served by CentOS, which led to last week's announcement of something it's calling "no-cost RHEL for small production workloads."
"Small" would be the key word here.
What the company has done is to take the existing Red Hat Developer program, which allows developers to run RHEL on a single server running non-production workloads, and expanded that to 16 servers and adding permission for production use.
However, CentOS is used by some very large companies, including Comcast, AutoZone, CVS Health, Raytheon, Salesforce and others, and although no figures are available for the size of their CentOS deployments, IT professionals may be forgiven for wondering if 16 servers can fill enterprise-level demands at that scale.
No problem, according to Red Hat. There's still more to come.
"These are not the only programs we're rolling out," said Brian Exelbierd, the community business owner for Red Hat Enterprise Linux product management (and a CentOS board member). "We're rolling out programs as soon as they're ready, not by some mystical order or divine strategy."
He pointed out that while this free RHEL offering is a simple expansion of an existing program, and additional solutions to address the needs of CentOS users will require more research on Red Hat's part to understand how to best design a program.
"In other cases, like for academic work, research, work on NGOs and hosting companies, we're having to come up with things cut out of whole cloth, and it takes longer to get those programs operational," he said.
Part of the problem, Exelbierd said, is that Red Hat doesn't really have a handle on who CentOS users are, the workloads they're running, or their particular needs.
"We don't have any contact with them," he said. "They've very often never even spoken to the project. They've never interacted with the mailing list, so no one knows who they are. This this why we have a 'CentOS questions' email address [[email protected]]. It's like, please email us so we can understand your challenges."
One group that Red Hat already knows is deploying millions of CentOS installs are web hosting companies, who are using CentOS because they have in-house RHEL expertise and therefore don't require support. Their hosting plans typically default to CentOS, while including options for other free Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu or Debian, for those who want them.
"You take somebody who's a small VPS host, and they've been using CentOS, Ubuntu or whatever -- we really think that person is going to get a lot of value out of running their business on RHEL," Exelbierd said. "They need to have a way to make RHEL viable and consumable within their business model and we've got to talk to them.
"Otherwise," he added, "there are a couple of Red Hatters who used to work at small hosters, but that's 10-year-old information. I don't want to get them and design a program with them, because I need to know what today's hosters challenges are."
In our talk with Exelbierd, we posited that today’s hosters probably want something close to what they've been getting from CentOS: perhaps a program that would let them use low-cost or free RHEL without support , on an unlimited number of servers.
"My understanding is there do exist product offerings that are exactly what you have described," he said. "I don't know the mechanism by which you qualify to access them. That's what I'm not qualified to speak on. But those product offerings do exist."
It remains to be seen whether many CentOS users are going to want to jump through hoops to negotiate a contract with Red Hat if they can wait for one of the two completely free CentOS replacements are in the works.
AlmaLinux, due to be released in Q1 2021, comes from CloudLinux, which already has a commercial downstream RHEL distribution, and thus already has an infrastructure to handle patching in place. AlmaLinux will also offer a one-click upgrade process with no downtime for those migrating from CentOS 8.
The other CentOS replacement, Rocky Linux, is from CentOS co-founder Gregory Kurtzer, and is expected to be ready for production in Q2 2021.