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"We Are Not Proprietary," Protests Red Hat - Torvalds Agrees

Is it fair to characterize Red Hat, which even Linus Torvalds agrees "has their own vendor kernel," as proprietary?

Is it fair to characterize Red Hat, which even Linus Torvalds agrees "has their own vendor kernel,"  as proprietary?

Torvalds, quoted in an interview yesterday, thinks not. But Sun's new president and COO, Jonathan Schwartz, does not agree. He repeated yesterday the charges he has made before, namely that Red Hat has "forked" Linux on the server side.

"There is a fork in the Linux world: Red Hat and the others," the same interview quotes Schwartz as having said. "Red Hat has pretty much forked the distribution. This has given Red Hat tremendous gains for now, but ultimately it's an impediment in the growth of Linux."

Noting that a number of the top Linux kernel contributors are Red Hat employees, Torvalds declared that RH is "not proprietary." And RH spokesman Leigh Day was adamant:

"We are fully committed to open source and our code reflects that. Red Hat has no proprietary software built in our distribution. Our core strategy is built on open source and we will not deviate from that strategy."

Why did this whole subject come up? The usual reason - Schwartz was asked whether Sun is still open to developing an open-source version of Java, as invited to do - for example - by IBM. Here's how the report described Schwartz's response:

"After observing that open-sourcing Java under the GNU General Public License (GPL) 'is not off the table,' [Schwartz] added that one problem Sun has with the GPL is that it encourages forking. He pointed to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) as an example."


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Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
Jim 04/30/04 08:06:01 PM EDT

The term proprietary means "privately owned and controlled". Hence software can remain proprietary even when source code is made publicly available, if control over use, distribution, or modification is retained (e.g., the commercial version of SSH.) On the other hand, software is considered non-proprietary once it is released with a license that would permit others to "fork" the software and release their own modified versions without onerous restrictions, even though the copyright may remain in the hands of a single individual. At least in theory, control has been conceded.

Is Red Hat Linux proprietary software? NO, I can download their source and modify it or fork it to my own kernel if I choose to do so. Again, White Box and Mandrake are built (forked) from the Red Hat kernel. Is Red Hat a fork? Yes. A project fork or branch happens when a developer (or a group of them) takes code from a project and starts to develop independently of the rest. The problem is that when people here about forks in software they relate it to the many different versions of Unix and how it caused a breakdown in acceptance of Unix in the enterprise. This is wrong in thinking of forking as bad in the open source world. Many times forking in the open source world leads to specialized software or software that has different features or approaches that the original product. The forking of Unix lead to a Unix kernel built for certain hardware platforms. Which meant not every one could run it or that the hardware became useless.

Farce Pest 04/29/04 07:18:22 PM EDT

RedHerringHat is a little off-base on his Red Hat criticisms. For starters, other distros *do* use RPM, including SuSE, Yellow Dog, and Mandrake. You can easily install RPM on Gentoo, and probably any other Linux distro. RPM is GPL, and has been around since at least 1996, and probably earlier. Extracting a tarball out of an RPM is easy: Get rpm2tgz.

Anyway, if Red Hat is a fork in the road, the road forked about 8 years ago.

RedHerringHat 04/29/04 03:04:41 PM EDT

Thanks for the pointer, Timothy. I was going by the article here which doesn't mention Schwartz saying that Red Hat is proprietary.

BSDProtector: Being open source doesn't keep you from being proprietary. By virtue of their large customer base, Red Hat is the "400 pound gorilla" of the Linux world. ISVs qualify their products on Red Hat first (and often ONLY!) Will their product work on Debian, Gentoo, SuSE, etc? Maybe. Maybe not. Why don't you load up the RPMs and see? Oh, your distro doesn't use RPMs? Sorry. Can you have a friend with Red Hat load the RPMs on his box and create a tarball for you? That might work, as long as your distro has the same directory structure as Red Hat. And the same version of the kernel. And the same version of libc. Of course, since Red Hat isn't proprietary, you are free to download their sources and make your distro completely compatible with Red Hat so that everything else you try to use will work.

That's proprietary. At the very least, it's a fork in the Linux world. By virtue of their popularity, Red Hat can tell the rest of the Linux world to do it "my way or the highway."

PlainView 04/29/04 01:05:18 AM EDT

See http://osdir.com/Article492.phtml for a story titled: "Enterprise Linux: RedHat ES 3.0 vs. SuSE Server 8.0: Battle for the Enterprise"

Gentleman is quoted as saying: "My company, Command Prompt, has traditionally been a Red Hat house. All our managed servers run Red Hat 7.3 or above. We do not support Debian, Gentoo, or any other 'hobby' Linux. This is not to say those distributions are not worthy (I use Gentoo and SuSE at home), it's that they are not what most customers consider 'commercial' Linux distributions."

So, RedHat may or may not be a "fork" in Linux but the different distributions don't sound compatible to me.

Yeah, right... this is what I want with Java. Sorry, no way. WORA!

BSDProtector 04/28/04 10:31:34 PM EDT

Given that such a high ranking executive cannot be stupid, he must be pretending that he is. How can Red Hat's Linux (kernel and everything else) be proprietary when I can download all of it today and it'll be licensed to me under the GPL? In fact, one could take all Red Hat's kernel patches and apply them to vanilla or other kernel, if one had time to adjust them (ditto other software).

It is a disgrace that Schwartz could fall to such lows.

someone curious 04/28/04 07:04:03 PM EDT

Just curious, where can I see source for "service module" or/and "management module" that may come with RHEL ?

Timothy J. Bogart 04/28/04 02:05:39 PM EDT

http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1573433,00.asp was the 'original' article that I was referring to and it states:

"Schwartz went on to say that Red Hat's price increases and proprietary extensions have lead to "CIOs figuring out that open source does not equal open standards. Open standards, which Sun has always supported, are better. Proprietary open source [like RHEL] can come back and bite you." "

The word 'proprietary' is clearly used.


RedHerringHat 04/28/04 10:21:49 AM EDT

In the original article, Schwartz says "forked" and Red Hat replies with "not proprietary." Schwartz never said anything about "proprietary." That was Red Hat's dodge to avoid addressing "forked."

Timothy J. Bogart 04/27/04 09:37:51 PM EDT

The original article says BOTH forked and proprietary. Forking seems to be a religious issue, but both Red Hat and Suse do their own kernel tweeking, and as long as the code is available, there is no way this can be said to be proprietary code. From either the legal sense of code ownership and the definition on dictionary.com. It can't be proprietary if the source code is GPL'd. Period.

And as to support questions, well, the whole point on having the source is that always gives you alternatives. Contract with whatever programmer you want if you want something other than the 'off the shelf' support from a vendor.

booda 04/27/04 08:03:08 PM EDT

In my book, Red Hat definitely is a proprietary Linux. Do you use it every day at work? Does your business rely on it? I do. Mine does. And when I say "use it" I mean use it beyond e-mail and web browsing. Supporting it, administering it, etc.

Before everyone gets all riled up, take a second look at the spin Linus puts on his comment. Yes, Red Hat uses GNU/Linux, and yes, GNU/Linux is distributed under the GPL. But Red Hat (as well as any distro) is MORE than just the kernel. So Linus is "correct" (accurate) but that doesn't make his comment "right". Red Hat arranges system files and other OS-level properties a certain way. Things work a certain way on Red Hat that don't work that way anyplace else. Want to stay compatible with Red Hat? Want to get support from Red Hat? You have to subscribe, and you can't do anything that they don't want you to do. Need support for Apache on your Red Hat server? Better hope you installed Apache ONLY from the approved Red Hat RPMs and not plain source.

In my book, Red Hat is a "proprietary Linux," and I don't see anything wrong with calling them (or it) that. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and has feathers like a duck, it's probably a duck or reasonable facsimile thereof.

RedHerringHat 04/27/04 02:23:48 PM EDT

"Forked" does not require "proprietary." Red Hat threw out "not proprietary" in response to "forked" but they have completely avoided responding to "forked."

Like it or not, in North America when a corporation is talking about Linux, they are almost always talking about Red Hat. Since there really is no central standard and release roadmap for everything that goes into a Linux distribution, Red Hat has become the "standard" in North America. Red Hat has a large user base, and this creates a schism or fork between those who use Red Hat and the rest of the Linux community. Debian doesn't enjoy significant commercial success, despite it's advantages over Red Hat. Those who use Debian, Mandrake, Lindows, etc, etc. are not conforming to the "Red Hat standard." Why should they? In terms of overall Linux usage, Red Hat is probably less than 50% of the users. Red Hat has forked Linux. So has SuSE and a few others.

And that's not even the real point of what Schwartz was talking about.

The "freedom to fork" afforded by the GPL is exactly the problem Schwartz is talking about. While it lets you do great things in many cases, it's also a serious impediment in others. What if the original C compiler had been GPL and people had gone off in various directions with the language. Would C have become a viable programming language? Microsoft already did that bit with Java and they got sued for it. They added their own "extensions" to Java to try to make it specific to Windows. Now IBM is suggesting that Sun encourage exactly that behavior by GPLing Java. Bad plan. The whole "write once run everywhere" feature of Java would immediately evaporate as people created Java forks optimized for various OSes and/or CPUs.

The GPL is a wonderful thing in the right situations. And there are many, many "right" situations. "GPL as religion" is not one of them.

History 04/27/04 12:48:39 PM EDT

Sun get married with Microsoft.
Everyone seen it.
Such as people say that "Sun give up his future"
So disappointed.
Where Sun expert can do/go? Goto Microsoft.

Duffy Gillman 04/27/04 12:34:31 PM EDT

This seems to boil down to an image war started when IBM tossed the first handful of dirt. IBM, for whatever reason, called into question Sun's opensource street cred. Java is useful because it is protected: no one can claim to have a Java Virtual Machine unless it meets Sun's standards. This keeps everyone's stock-ticker applet running no matter what platform it is on. So Schwartz has a point. Sun spent oodles going to court to prevent Microsoft from diluting Java with a non-standard implementation. It would be ludicrous to allow the community at large the same leeway. Is it wrong to point to RedHat as an example of this? No. I run RedHat, and as a developer have run into several snags in the past because of RedHat's idiosyncratic choice of libraries or configurations. This is not a complaint, but a matter of fact. Freeing the source means someone will fiddle with it and inconsistencies will arise. Java will lose its value if this happens.

Perhaps Schwartz should have picked his examples more carefully, or explained more thoroughly. RedHat sounds to be on the defensive in order to protect their "more opensource than thou" image before the same bully pulpit IBM uses to chastise Sun.

JIm 04/27/04 12:10:17 PM EDT

So according to RedHerringHat Red Hat has forked Linux, then I say that so has Linspire, Xandros, Lycoris and others. As far as Red Hat saying the rest of the world is marching out of step with them, then ESR is saying the same thing. He continually makes quotes about certain projects that don't live up to the GPL and that they shouldn't be part of Debian, including KDE. Even after the project does their best to support fully the GPL. The GPL itself gives people the freedom to fork a project in a certain direction. Even now Debian is taking the Anaconda Installer from the Fedora Project and using it in the upcoming release. Wait, how can they do that, Red Hat is proprietary and forked. They can do it because every one has the right to modify source. Even Mandrake modifies Red Hats source. There's also White Box, which is a modification of RHL3. Is Red Hat making money from these two distributions? NO. Is forking a project a bad thing? NO. The beauty of forking projects and sharing source is that many different needs get meet. Unlike companies like Microsoft that have closed source and do what they feel every one needs.

RedHerringHat 04/27/04 10:43:30 AM EDT

Red Hat deftly avoided addressing Schwartz's assertion. He said that Red Hat has forked Linux. Their response was that they have no proprietary code in Red Hat, and everyone seems to be distracted by the issue of proprietary code. You don't need to have proprietary code to fork Linux. All you need to do is have a significant number of people who do it your way and have your way be incompatible with other ways of doing it.

The unspoken innuendo in Red Hat's response is that everyone else is marching out of step with them and there's nothing preventing the rest of the world from doing Linux the Red Hat way.

Sun'sCOOisSharpTongued 04/27/04 08:26:38 AM EDT

wasn't that the same time that he attacked IBM about Eclipse and the Standard Widget Toolkit:

Schwartz: I think what they've done with SWT violates really what you would want to do with the Java platform. No one wants "write once, run on this operating system."

IBM has a lot of weight and they don't like the JCP, I think in part because they can't throw their weight around. They are just one voice of many.

This guy isn't someone you'd want for your enemy. Red Hat should watch out!

SunSpotter 04/27/04 08:24:27 AM EDT

He said the same thing in september of last year:

Q: Should Java be made fully open-source?

Schwartz: The problem with open-source is that [victory] goes to volume, and that's evident in the Linux community today where ISVs [independent software vendors] are qualifying to Red Hat and abandoning everyone else. Why? Because Red Hat has volume."

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