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The Future of Public RHEL-related Source Code Releases: A Candid Conversation with Red Hat’s Gunnar Hellekson about CentOS Stream | Futurum Tech Webcast

FTW.Red Hat.The Future of Public RHEL-related Source Code Releases

On this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast – Interview Series, I’m joined by Gunnar Hellekson, GM and VP of Red Hat Enterprise Linux for a candid and transparent conversation about CentOS Stream and the future of public RHEL-related source code releases.

Our discussion covers:

  • We get an overview of some of the recent announcements from Red Hat surrounding CentOS Stream
  • A look at how Red Hat is approaching the future of public RHEL-related source code releases
  • We discuss some of the community reaction to the changes in source code releases, and Red Hat’s commitment to their upstream-first policy
  • Gunnar shares how Red Hat is prioritizing the ease of transition into Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and what that looks like for users
  • Finally, I ask Gunnar to share three key takeaways that he’d like community, enterprise customers, and non-enterprise developers to consider from our discussion

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Transcript:

Steven Dickens: Hello, and welcome to the Futurum Tech webcast. My name is Steven Dickens. I’m your host. I’m joined today by Gunnar Hellekson from Red Hat. Hey, Gunnar, welcome to the show.

Gunnar Hellekson: Oh, happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Steven Dickens: We were talking off camera, lots going on. I think it’s really good. I appreciate you joining us. I think today if we can give some context to some of the announcements, I think there’s a lot of chatter going on in the community. I’ve read a lot. There’s been a lot said. I think I really appreciate you joining the show, but let’s start first by introducing your role. That’ll provide some context to listeners and viewers around why you are here and why we’re having this conversation.

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, sure. I’m Gunnar Hellekson. I’ve been with Red Hat for 16, almost 17 years now. I guess I started in 2006. Today I’m the general manager and vice president for Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Steven Dickens: That gives us a perfect segue. Lots going on. Obviously, some announcements made that have resonated in the industry and in the community. I saw the smile. You made some announcements about CentOS Stream and some of the thoughts there. I mean, let’s maybe just dive straight in, give us some context. Tell us what you’d announced and maybe some of the thinking there on the rationale that you and the leadership team came to.

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, sure. In order to understand the announcement, you first have to understand some basics of how it is that we work. First and most important thing, is that everything that Red Hat does works through first the open-source communities. Internally, we have an upstream-first policy where every patch, every bug, every feature that we do has to be in the upstream first. Then it flows from one of the 13,000 open-source projects that comprise Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It flows down through first the Fedora projects, which we sponsor. Then from the Fedora project, it flows down into, and you can think about Fedora as a peek into what’s coming up next for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the next major release.

Steven Dickens: I think that’s interesting you mentioned Fedora. It’s not been part of the discussion. Maybe double-click there as you just describe the thread because, I mean, I’ve read a lot over the last couple of weeks. Everything’s been around CentOS and the announcement, not so much about the role Fedora plays in the bright light.

Gunnar Hellekson: Fedora is a, it is itself an open-source project. The job there is to build an operating system. It means pulling together, not just for the purposes of building RHEL, they have their own communities, people building on Raspberry PIs and people doing exotic things with the video editing. Lots of different communities inside it, but Fedora is the place where we let new ideas incubate. That’s where we come up with all these experiments of where would this work and would this work properly? What if we tried it this way? Fedora is the place where we can work some of those things out. Fedora moves very quickly, as a result. It’s our first proving ground for new ideas. It’s a place for us to collaborate with a lot of these upstream communities.

Let’s say about every three years then, we take a look at what we’re doing in Fedora and we take out, it doesn’t exactly work like this, but you can think of us taking a snapshot of what’s in Fedora and then that becomes, moves into another project called CentOS Stream. From CentOS Stream, then we’re building the next version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux in public.

Now, what a lot of people don’t totally understand is that we used to just go from Fedora or go from open-source projects into Fedora and then into RHEL. As a consequence of this, a lot of the development of Red Hat Enterprise Linux actually happened inside the walls of Red Hat. It actually wasn’t very transparent at all. Despite us being an open-source company and having an upstream-first policy, the move, or the introduction of this intermediate CentOS Stream step actually made 95% of the development that we do of Red Hat Enterprise Linux completely in the open. We’ve been operating in this way since the advent of CentOS Stream.

From a completely open and transparent community like Fedora then into an open and transparent community like CentOS Stream. From CentOS Stream, we then build Red Hat Enterprise Linux, go through the testing with our partners, go through our certification processes, et cetera, et cetera, and then release a stable, supportable release that will last for 10 years for each major release.

Every three years we release a operating system that lasts for at least 10 years. Then every six months we update it. Each of those updates you can then sit on, you can park on for two, four, sometimes longer. At any given point, there are between 14 and 17 different versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux running, all fully-supported, all getting security fixes and all the rest of it.

A good way of understanding the difference between each of these projects is at each iteration we go from Fedora and then into CentOS Stream and into Red Hat Enterprise Linux, you’re increasing the amount of testing, you’re increasing the amount of certification, and you’re increasing the amount of stability, that is less and less changes as you move down this waterfall.

Again, when we’re building Red Hat Enterprise Linux, it is all open-source. It was open in the upstream open-source communities. It is open in Fedora, and it is open in CentOS Stream.

Steven Dickens: That’s fantastic context. I think that level of almost pipeline for how the code gets developed is really interesting. Obviously, made some specific announcements in the last couple of weeks. Do you want to maybe just spend a couple of minutes there of what you announced and what the thinking was?

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, sure. Back in the Fedora and RHEL days, before the introduction of CentOS Stream, we made source code available in two ways. That is the source code for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. First, we made it available to our customers through our customer portal, as you might expect. Then we also made it available through an FTP site. Through that FTP site, then downstream rebuilt would take that source code and then they would go build, say CentOS, for example, CentOS Linux. About two years ago, the CentOS project changed its strategy. It was no longer a downstream rebuild and it now became that midstream, CentOS Stream that I just described. But we still kept releasing our source code on that get.CentOS.org site, mostly frankly out of muscle memory. It was just what we were doing so we just kept doing it.

Now we have three places where we’re releasing the source code for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Now we have CentOS Stream because everything that goes into RHEL goes into CentOS Stream first. It’s in CentOS Stream and it’s in the customer portal and it’s in get.CentOS.org. This seemed innocuous. It’s not that big a deal to be releasing source code in three different replaces. It’s an aggressive way of complying with the GPL, the new public license that we’re under, but it’s fine. It’s innocuous.

The trouble was that because we were publishing that source code to get.CentOS.org to the public where anyone can download it, we had several rebuilders, like Rocky, like Alma, were taking that source code and then rebuilding RHEL from that source code and then claiming bug-for-bug compatibility with Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

There’s two sets of concerns here. There’s a set of licensing concerns and then there’s a set of commercial concerns. I’ll say the quiet part out loud on the commercial concerns is we’re not interested in encouraging people to go rebuild Red Hat Enterprise Linux. We’re not interested in making that easier. We have a commercial product that we think is extremely valuable. We sell it for money. We feel very comfortable not making it easy to create a clone of our own product.

Steven Dickens: I think from looking at this and analyzing this, I think this gets lost in the discussion. Red Hat’s commercial business, you’re taking the pipeline of free, community-developed, adding a significant amount of value, testing, certification, support, and they’re looking to build a commercial business off that. You’re not alone in doing this. I had Ash Kulkarni, the CEO of Elastic on this podcast a few weeks back. We’ve spent some time at MongoDB and spoke to their team.

This is a standard model of how you support a community. There’s a lot of investment. I know that Red Hat makes it community building. I was out at KubeCon in your community days. You put a lot of your money, time and effort into building those communities, but ultimately you’re a for-profit business that’s looking to build a commercial enterprise and have got ultimately now responsibility to shareholders and to various entities to make profit from your activities and efforts. I think that gets lost in the discussion.

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, I think that’s right. Then which brings us to the first caveat. There’s the set of commercial concerns. Then there’s the set of licensing and open-source concerns. Of course, the first reaction, which makes perfect sense, is well, they’re violating the GPL. They’re violating the letter of the GPL. They’re violating the spirit of the GPL. I think the consensus that we’re seeing now in the reaction, the consensus is that we’re abiding certainly by the letter of the GPL, we’re not actually violating the terms of the license. That’s because anyone who receives our binaries still receives our source code. That is what the GPL requires.

In fact, we continue to go I think above and beyond what the GPL requires by doing things like making sure all our contributions are upstream first, by doing things like doing all our development in the open in CentOS Stream. These are all actions that we take to do things in the open because we see benefit in working with open-source communities. We take all our contributions, everything we build, we contribute back. This is what a healthy, open-source ecosystem looks like.

What’s interesting and totally fascinating is the interaction between the new public license, the GPL, and our enterprise agreement. There’s been a great deal written on this in the last week and a half. But the truth is that we do comply with the GPL, and we also are entitled to put a set of terms on the software that we deliver. That says that, “Listen, we’re going to put some terms on how you’re allowed to use our software. If you violate that, we don’t take anything away from your rights to use the GPL, but we do reserve the right to no longer have a commercial relationship with you.” These two things are not in conflict. They work side by side and one doesn’t override the other.

Steven Dickens: That level of provision around what is enterprise software is not new, is not revolutionary. It’s the way the software industry has been built over the last multiple decades. Whether you ask Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, anybody who’s selling commercial software, there’ll be terms around how you use that software.

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, that’s right. Now, a lot of these, I’ll say too that I think a lot of these are what it comes down to is there’s legal arguments you can make and there’s moral arguments that you can make. I mean, I think the truth is that this was disruptive to a certain number of people who were relying on the existence of these downstream rebuilds, either because they did not have the means or interest in paying Red Hat for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and they still wanted to benefit from the software that we shipped. I can understand why that would be disappointing. That makes sense to me. I can imagine why that would be disruptive, but I think it is also true that we have made Red Hat Enterprise Linux, especially over the last several years, we have made it more available and more freely available than it ever has been.

Customers have what we have a Red Hat for open-source infrastructure program. We have the Developer for Individuals program, which you can now run RHEL in production, up to 16 systems, you can run in production for free. All you have to do is go sign up for the developer program and we let you do that. Nevermind a whole bunch of different kinds of commercial relationships and discounts and all kinds of stuff that we can make available.

I think I feel comfortable. There’s always more that we can do to make RHEL more available for different kinds of use cases, making it easier to consume, managing subscriptions less odious. I mean, that’s all stuff that we are extremely interested in improving, but just because we have say friction over here or we still have work to do on making RHEL more available, that does not mean, for our purposes, that does not mean that we have to make things easier for these downstream rebuilders.

Steven Dickens: You’ve touched on it a little bit, but I’ll maybe ask the question. Can you elaborate then what you think the announcements made, what is it 10 days ago now or how just however many days ago when they say is, what those announcement means for customers and more widely for the industry as a whole?

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, in terms of customers, the announcement means nothing for customers. They have all the rights and privileges they had before. They have the same stability they had before. They have the same liability they had before. They’re getting the same software they have before. Red Hat’s policies haven’t changed. Everything is 100% totally normal.

Steven Dickens: Let’s just pause there. You’re an enterprise customer, you’re a Red Hat paying customer, you’re on a support contract, no changes whatsoever.

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, you still got your lifecycle promises. You still got your security promises. You still got your stability promises. All these things are still available to you, right?

Steven Dickens: Yes.

Gunnar Hellekson: I think what’s different is, here’s the funny thing, is I can’t actually tell you what’s different yet because what we’ve done is said, “Okay, well we’re not going to publish our source code in this particular place. If you want our source code, you can go here or you can go here.” What matters now is what the downstream communities do. Now they have to find another way of doing the thing that they wanted to do.

Now what we would prefer that they do is go work in places like CentOS Stream, which is specifically designed to go collaborate with other people on building an operating system. If people want to create a variant of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, then CentOS Stream allows them to do that. If you want to go build Red Hat Enterprise Linux for Raspberry Pi, if you want to, you can do that in CentOS Stream. That’s what it’s it designed to do. I would love it if the downstream rebuilders worked through the CentOS Stream source code as opposed to our downstream.

Again, going back to this thing, we’re not explicitly preventing them from doing what they’re doing. What we’re doing is not making it easier because we don’t see a reason to make it easier. If they find a way of doing what they’re doing through CentOS Stream, that is what CentOS Stream is for.

Steven Dickens: One thing that’s come to the fore and lots of heat and noise from the community, I’ve seen that the whole gamut of reaction. The community’s very good at getting riled up and commenting and being vocal. But I think one thing I’d like to understand is what’s Red Hat’s commitment to the open-source community? I’ve seen that up front. We talked about KubeCon, and I sat through one of your community days where there was a lot of focus and time and effort that Red Hat had put into alt and cost into hosting a community event that would’ve benefited a lot of other people outside of just Red Hat. But maybe I’ve got an access to this that maybe other people haven’t seen. Maybe the simple question is give me a view of Red Hat’s commitment to open-source.

Gunnar Hellekson: Red Hat’s commitment to open-source hasn’t changed a bit. I’ll say it again for the record. We have an upstream-first policy. Everything that we do in Red Hat Enterprise Linux has to be upstream first. I’ll tell you internally, this makes things very difficult sometimes. I mean, there is software that we would love to ship soon or we would love to get out the door earlier, but we force ourselves to go through the upstream process, go through the community process because we feel like that adds value. It’s also an obligation that we have to those communities from which we pull.

We rely on those communities in order to build our product. We owe it to them to make sure that the improvements that we make end up going back into those communities. Sometimes it doesn’t happen as fast as we would like, but we still do it because we think it’s important. It’s an important part of the, in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem, that is what you need to do is contribute back to the places that you draw from. I think that’s core to the open-source ethos.

Again, we are famously an open-source company. We take that very, very, very seriously. That’s why all our products are open-source products. That’s why we contribute to the upstreams. That’s why we sponsor community events. That’s why when we see open-source projects that we’re interested in and that have that interest in, we will go hire the people that are working in those upstream projects in order to make sure that those projects stay healthy and stay useful. Open-source is very, very deep in our DNA. I feel comfortable saying that nothing about that has changed.

Steven Dickens: One of the questions that’s specifically here is we know that CentOS is starting to become an end of life. That’s approaching us June 2024. People are starting to think around what they do there. What would you describe as some of those migration options, thoughts as people start to plan ahead for summer next year?

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, sure. That’s right. June 30th of 2024 is coming. It’s going to come faster than anybody wants.

Steven Dickens: These things always come around.

Gunnar Hellekson: That is coincident actually with another interesting moment, which is the end of life of RHEL 7. What I’m encouraging everybody to do is look at all of the options for CentOS 7. There are several available to you. Of course I’m going to talk about the RHEL options, but there are many others in the market. You should take a look at those. I consider my job is not to force everybody into a Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I’m not interested in getting business that way.

What I will do is make sure that RHEL is the most attractive option. To that end, we’ve done things like improve the tooling for converting CentOS systems over to Red Hat Enterprise Linux systems. We have created more promotions and discounts than I can even imagine in helping people with the transition because we recognize that the cost of the act of transitioning from CentOS to something else is, it’s not just a matter of a software cost, it’s also the cost of calories and time and attention. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for folks to transition into Red Hat Enterprise Linux because we feel like that’s the best choice.

If they do transition into Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we can offer them the option of staying on version 7 for years after the end of life of 7. You can stay there for two years or four years. Giving people as much flexibility and allowing them to buy as much time as they can, I know, especially with COVID and the way that the labor market is working and the way that the economy is going, nobody’s migration plans are going as smoothly or as quickly as they would like. We’ve created as much runway as we can allow people to buy time.

Parenthetically, this is exactly what Red Hat Enterprise Linux does, is allow you to stay in one place, give you a collection point, a point of stability so that you can manage things like your transition costs and your migration costs. Our ability to deliver another two years of life on Red Enterprise Linux, that option is a core value of what you’re getting when you’re using Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Steven Dickens: That’s the, I suppose, enterprise space. Sounds very well covered. You guys have long had a pathway for somebody who’s maybe starting their Linux journey or moving workloads and needs that supportive base. What about that non-enterprise developer journey? Where do you see Red Hat’s position there and what are you doing to encourage that space?

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, sure. Remember we were talking about that waterfall of the upstream projects to Fedora to CentOS Stream into Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The truth is that one of the beautiful things about this ecosystem there, this pipeline that we have, is that depending on the work that you’re doing, there is going to be a place for you to do that work.

The kind of person who likes mucking around in operating systems and figuring out how to make storage subsystems work correctly, you’re going to find a great audience in the Fedora project. If you’re the kind of person who says, “Well, what would it mean to put Red Enterprise Linux on a Raspberry Pi or make it fit on this tiny device here,” CentOS Stream is a great place to do that work. If I want to do optimizations for a particular piece of hardware, CentOS Stream is a great place to experiment with things like that.

If you’re building an application for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, for example, through the partner program and through the developer programs, you have all the free access to Red Hat Enterprise Linux you could possibly want and combine that with CentOS Stream. What you have is the ability to not just build against your application or your project against Red Hat Enterprise Linux. You also have the ability through CentOS Stream to test against the next version of Red Enterprise Linux. You get a heads-up. You don’t have to wait for us to drop a beta. You can actually watch the development over time, put it in your CI system and make sure that the no regressions are introduced as you go.

As I said earlier, if you think about Red Hat Enterprise Linux in its entirety, the whole ecosystem that goes into building Red Hat Enterprise Linux, I feel like we have lots of places where people can insert themselves to both contribute and also to build on top of. Depending on your cadence, depending on your speed, depending on the kind of stability you want, depending on who your target audience is, we have lots of different places where people can work. That’s one of the nice things about working in the open-source community is I don’t just have one commercial product to give you and you have to work on that commercial product. You have all these choices available to you.

Steven Dickens: Gunnar, we’ve had a free-ranging conversation. Part of this was to give you a platform to be able to engage with the community. Is there anything I’ve maybe not asked you that you’ve seen come up over the last 7 to 10 days that you feel I should?

Gunnar Hellekson: Let’s see. I think one thing that has surprised me is when we’re living in a world of CentOS Linux, for example, and living in this is, I think people understand that, I know that people believe in what Red Hat Enterprise Linux is doing because so many people are using Red Hat Enterprise Linux and those downstream.

I think it’s interesting to think of this notion that what Red Hat is doing through Red Hat Enterprise Linux, that was always duplicated downstream and it was always available for free. The truth is that it wasn’t all available downstream and available for free. The CentOS project, for years, had trouble keeping up with what Red Hat Enterprise Linux was doing. When you were on CentOS Linux, the patches and the security fixes would dip a little bit as we transitioned from one version to another. They always wanted to be close to us, but they sometimes had a hard time doing it. Things like the latest version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, they could keep pace with. But past versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, they did not keep pace with. I mean, I’ve talked to people who are under the misunderstanding that a lot of these downstream projects perfectly duplicate the Red Hat Enterprise Linux experience. The truth is that they never did.

I think so what I would encourage, what I’m hoping happens next is that people realize that they can take advantage of CentOS Stream and use it for what it is intended to do, which is go encourage variants of Red Enterprise Linux and try new things out and go do new things and add things into the ecosystem in order to make it more healthy and more sustainable for everyone.

Anyway, that’s my wish. That’s what I hope happens next.

Steven Dickens: Gunnar, freewheeling conversation and really appreciate the transparency. As we talked off camera, you weren’t up for ducking any questions, and you’ve certainly not ducked any of the questions while we talk here. What would be those key three key sentences, three key takeaways that you’d like the community and enterprise customers and those non-enterprise developers to take away from our discussion and really the thought process behind why you made the announcements.

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, sure. For customers and partners, nothing has changed about Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It is still the same. It’s the same software, built the same way with the same open-source commitment that we’ve had for the last 20, 30 years.

The second thing is for the community, please avail yourself of all of the community-focused programs, the developer programs that we have available. They’re designed to help you. If you find yourself working on a project or working on a product that needs Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we have done everything that we can to make that Red Hat Enterprise Linux available to you and make it easy for you to get.

The third thing is that I would encourage everybody to think about Red Hat Enterprise Linux as the end product of a much longer pipeline of work than that Red Hat is involved in every step of, and all those steps are available to everyone else as well. People can work in Fedora. People can work in the upstream communities. People can work in CentOS Stream. All of this, all the work in there still accrues to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Find the community, find the spot in the pipeline where you’re most comfortable working and work there. I mean, I think that’s what I would like to leave folks with.

Steven Dickens: Fantastic. Well, Gunnar, I’m going to appreciate you jumping on with us here. I know you’ve got a busy schedule. Getting you on the day after 4th of July, I really appreciate it. Thanks for the transparency. Tough discussion, but I think I really appreciate your comments and the willingness to pretty much answer any questions that I’ve got here. Thank you very much for joining us.

Gunnar Hellekson: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks very much.

Steven Dickens: You’ve been watching us here on the Futurum Tech webcast. Please click and subscribe, and we’ll see you next time. Thank you very much for watching.

Author Information

Regarded as a luminary at the intersection of technology and business transformation, Steven Dickens is the Vice President and Practice Leader for Hybrid Cloud, Infrastructure, and Operations at The Futurum Group. With a distinguished track record as a Forbes contributor and a ranking among the Top 10 Analysts by ARInsights, Steven's unique vantage point enables him to chart the nexus between emergent technologies and disruptive innovation, offering unparalleled insights for global enterprises.

Steven's expertise spans a broad spectrum of technologies that drive modern enterprises. Notable among these are open source, hybrid cloud, mission-critical infrastructure, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and FinTech innovation. His work is foundational in aligning the strategic imperatives of C-suite executives with the practical needs of end users and technology practitioners, serving as a catalyst for optimizing the return on technology investments.

Over the years, Steven has been an integral part of industry behemoths including Broadcom, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), and IBM. His exceptional ability to pioneer multi-hundred-million-dollar products and to lead global sales teams with revenues in the same echelon has consistently demonstrated his capability for high-impact leadership.

Steven serves as a thought leader in various technology consortiums. He was a founding board member and former Chairperson of the Open Mainframe Project, under the aegis of the Linux Foundation. His role as a Board Advisor continues to shape the advocacy for open source implementations of mainframe technologies.

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