CENTOS: MOVING UPSTREAM

Andrew Prowse

Andrew Prowse

Manager Platform & DevOps

In January of 2014, Red Hat and the CentOS Project joined forces to “build a new CentOS, capable of driving forward development and adoption of next-generation open-source technologies”.  Late last year, Red Hat announced it will drop downstream CentOS Linux at the end of 2021 for CentOS Stream. For many, this came as a shock as back in July of 2019, Red Hat confirmed that they would support the CentOS roadmap, which has a stated EOL date of 2029. These plans have not really changed, however the announcement positions CentOS upstream between Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)1, sort of.
 
In order to best understand the reasoning, you really need to look a little beyond the hype surrounding this announcement.  As a long-term Red Hat Premier Partner (12+ years), we’d like to give you our perspective and hopefully reassure you that this is in fact a good thing; for both the upstream community (FOSS)2 as well as those of you who have been using CentOS as an alternative to other (COSS)3 Linux distributions.
 

What is CentOS?

 
The best place for us to start, is to tell you a little bit about CentOS.  CentOS is known as the stable, cost-free enterprise class Linux distribution, that is binary and operationally compatible with RHEL; albeit, with a slightly delayed release cycle. As Fedora is Red Hat’s upstream Linux distribution, including newer features for testing, CentOS is a downstream Linux distribution. CentOS is the ‘go to’ distribution for developers, test and cloud environments, and often times, for production as well. What CentOS is not, is supported by Red Hat. CentOS is not a clone of Red Hat Linux and therefore, is not Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).  A great description comes from the CentOS FAQ, “CentOS Linux is built from publicly available source code provided by Red Hat, Inc. for Red Hat Enterprise Linux in a completely different build system (maintained by the CentOS Project).”
 

CentOS Stream

 
The new role of CentOS is to go from downstream to upstream, but (as previously mentioned), only a little bit. Fedora is a bleeding edge, not ready for production (although some do use it due to its up-to-date features and cost), release of Linux. CentOS Stream will now be further downstream than Fedora, but still a minor release ahead of RHEL. No longer a binary substitute, but now becomes a testing ground for the next minor release.
 

Why the Change?

 
Why would Red Hat do this? Chris Wright, Red Hat’s CTO, said when CentOS Stream was introduced, “developers … require earlier access to code [in September 2019], improved and more transparent collaboration with the broader partner community, and the ability to influence the direction of new RHEL versions. It is these opportunities that CentOS Stream is intended to address.”
 
There are several other possible reasons Red Hat is making this change.  A couple that makes sense to us are:
  • To create a more developer-friendly version of RHEL by opening up RHEL code
  • Create a platform that can evolve with a bit more agility than CentOS could
  • And of course, drive more subscriptions to RHEL
 
Ultimately, as the defacto leader in the market, Red Hat (and by extension, IBM) often have to make difficult product management decisions that not everyone in the larger community will agree with.  This is reinforced by looking at the shift in focus to CentOS Stream as being about “filling an openness gap in some key ways”. Basically, Red Hat is “filling the development and contribution gap that exists between Fedora and RHEL by shifting the place of CentOS from just downstream of RHEL to just upstream of RHEL”.4
 
Red Hat’s Chris Wright went on to say that “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.” Yes, CentOS Stream isn’t a stable point server Linux distro that you can run for years, but it is what cloud-centric companies need to deploy “containerized applications and cloud-native services to rapid hardware innovations and ecosystems shifting to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). … This is where we see CentOS Stream fitting in. It provides a platform for rapid innovation at the community level but with a stable enough base to understand production dynamics.”5
 
Without trying to oversimplify it, a migration to CentOS Stream will just come down to a few commands.  And some pretty big companies (like Disney, GE, Rackspace and Juniper Networks, to name a few) are users and some also build their own products around CentOS.  Which means they, like others, will either adapt to the change or look at alternatives.
1 Red Hat Enterprise Linux
2 Free Open-Source Software

3 Commercial Open-Source Software
4 Paraphrased from Karsten Wade, an original CentOS board member and a Red Hat senior community architect
5 Why Red Hat Dumped CentOS for Centos Stream, ZDNet

"For those that need a binary compatible release, there are alternatives."

For those that need a binary compatible release, there are alternatives. Here are the 3 most compatible substitutes to CentOS:
Oracle Linux has been available since 2006. It is 100% application binary compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and it provides an equivalent to each RHEL release. And no, you do not need to sign any agreement with Oracle for using Oracle Linux. Oracle Linux comes with two choices of Linux kernels: The Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel (UEK) for Oracle Linux or the Red Hat Compatible Kernel (RHCK). 
Rocky Linux is a community enterprise operating system designed to be 100% bug-for-bug compatible with America’s top enterprise Linux distribution, now that its downstream partner has shifted direction. It is under intensive development by the community. Rocky Linux is led by Gregory Kurtzer, founder of the CentOS project. The ETA for the GA release is March 31, 2021. Contributors are asked to reach out using the communication options offered on their site.  Sounds a lot like the original CentOS (Community ENTerprise OS) project.
Yes, you read that correctly – there is still RHEL – Red Hat does have a no-cost developer subscription available for developing and testing. Click here for more information. Red Hat is also working on other subscription plans for testing and development for the future.
As both a Red Hat and Oracle Partner, we’ve had quite a lot of experience with our own clients regarding both RHEL and Oracle Linux, but Rocky Linux is quite interesting and one to watch for sure.

 

In the end, it’s as it always has been with Linux and Open Source in general, and that is a matter of choice.  Companies like ours are there to assist you in your journey to making that choice.  For most enterprise and public sector organizations, regulatory compliance and service levels are critical factors in their choices.  But functionality as well as the availability of qualified technical skill will also play a key role. 
 
Bringing CentOS Stream into the pipeline between Fedora and RHEL can only be a good thing for most, but perhaps not for all.  That said, being part of a community doesn’t mean everyone has to part of the same one or more importantly, just one.  Without getting philosophical (or political for that matter), it is what Open Source is all about and why we at HighVail are proud members and contributors to the Open-Source Community as a whole.

 

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Our focus is on simplifying the transition to new technologies. We architect, integrate and automate hybrid infrastructures – enhancing the utility of existing technology and delivering advice for modern solutions. With roots in IT infrastructure, DevOps and Open Source, we support our clients as they navigate through the complexities of modernization, capitalizing on the value captured by transformation.
 
Should you have questions, or if you need technical guidance, HighVail can help you simplify your transition to an alternative. We are ready to help enable your team to navigate a seamless adaptation, or we can fully facilitate the migration for you by taking advantage of one of our on-demand managed services. Contact us today to learn more and see how this change may affect your business.

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