For weeks the rumor mill has been full of guesses about what Oracle's big
Linux news, if any, might be. None of them, however, were correct. In the
end, Oracle has announced
a competing support program for Red Hat Linux. It will be most interesting
to see how things will evolve from here. At least nobody is complaining
anymore that you can't get support for Linux.
Oracle's program is easy to understand:
Oracle starts with Red Hat Linux, removes Red Hat trademarks, and
then adds Linux bug fixes... Every time Red Hat distributes a new
version we will resynchronize with their code. All we add are bug
fixes, which are immediately available to Red Hat and the rest of
Essentially, Oracle is offering a version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux
(RHEL) with the serial numbers filed off. To maintain compatibility,
Oracle also promises to file the serial numbers off of future RHEL releases
and distribute them as well. All for rather less money than Red Hat
charges. If that's not enough to entice customers to switch, Oracle also
tosses in a bit of old-fashioned SCO FUD as a bonus.
One cannot help but wonder just what Oracle is thinking here. Rather than
(as some had guessed) offering its own Linux distribution, it is
reaffirming the primacy of a competitor's offering. The added value
claimed by Oracle - the bug fixes that, says Oracle, Red Hat is failing to
provide to its customers - will, by Oracle's own admission, be immediately
available for Red Hat to incorporate back into its offerings as well.
Meanwhile Oracle is openly hitching a free ride on Red Hat's work with the
clear intent of cutting off the revenue stream which supports that work.
If Oracle is successful, it will kill the goose laying the golden eggs that
it is selling.
There are reasons to believe that Oracle might not be as successful as the
stock market evidently fears. Oracle claims Linux expertise, and it has
hired a few developers and made some real contributions. But Oracle's
contributions and expertise are both tiny compared to Red Hat's; customers
who are paying attention will understand that. Oracle will always be a
little behind Red Hat, following Red Hat's lead. The quality of Oracle's
support is not always praised by all of its customers, and the challenge of
dealing with Oracle's lawyers is legendary. It is hard to imagine why
people who are concerned about the quality of the support they are paying
for would not go directly to the source.
So what is Oracle up to? One line of reasoning says that Oracle is simply
trying to lower Red Hat's stock price to make an eventual acquisition
Certainly people seem to have no problem believing that Oracle would be
willing to use this sort of tactic. If Oracle is truly trying to soften
up the competition through a sort of shock and awe campaign, however, it is
hard to see that there would be a whole lot worth acquiring by the end.
Many of the core developers who make Red Hat what it is might find
themselves unwilling to go along with the new Oracle overlords; quite a few
of them may try to find another place to be.
What Oracle might be trying to do, instead, is to begin building up its
Linux expertise and the beginnings of a customer base in preparation for an
eventual fork of RHEL into its own distribution. The "bug fixes" could
grow over time until a point arrives where moving from Oracle's Linux back
to RHEL is no longer an easy thing to do. Perhaps a few proprietary pieces
would help to solidify the lock-in. If this plan went well, customers and
engineers would drift in Oracle's direction with no acquisition effort
required. Rather than jumping into the distribution business from the
beginning, Oracle could be dipping some toes into the water to see what
The arrival of free-riders in the commercial Linux world was always
inevitable, even if few people expected one the size of Oracle. In a way,
we are all free riders; even the heaviest contributor to the free software
community gets far more back than they could ever put in. Companies like
Red Hat and Oracle are not selling the software; they are selling the
quality of the service they provide. As long as customers pay attention to
what they are really buying and do not allow vendors to try to lock them
into a specific distribution, we should all come out ahead.
(See also: Red Hat's
"Unfakeable Linux" response to Oracle's announcement).
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