Kicking off 2012 with some downstream fun

Red Hat makes it a not-impossible task to remove the Red Hat branding from their flagship product and make your own distribution. In a comedically over-simplified way, essentially you can:

  • download the freely-available RHEL source RPMs
  • de-brand them (essentially replace redhat-logos and a few other key packages)
  • build out all of your altered RPMs and make a distro out of it (WAY out of this scope)
  • release your distribution under the same open source license as RHEL

There are several players in the universe of downstream, RHEL-derived releases, currently, and their situations are always changing. That is, of course, because they are all-volunteer efforts. Last year CentOS (http://www.centos.org) had some serious issues with their 6.0 release, and have always had a reputation of being an opaque and non-communicative group. Scientific Linux seized on the CentOS issues and attempted to make some real in-roads into their user base and community visibility. Another group actually formed in 2011, tryin to take the lessons learned from CentOS and Scientific Linux and make a new distribution with transparency built-in to the community. So how is every one doing today?

CentOS (http://www.centos.org)

In North America, CentOS has been the goto RHEL-derived Linux distribution since before I ever got into IT. The releases are normally stable, but have been plagued in the past by delays in security updates, point upgrades, and almost always a lack of communication from the CentOS team. There was talk in 2011 of CentOS finally moving to a rolling release methodology, but I can’t find any confirmation that it ever happened. Their site also has no links I could find to 6.x documentation or process. This isn’t to say that it isn’t happening, it’s just to say that they’re not telling anyone about it. They do announce 6.2 being released, which brings them more or less up to their upstream source. With all of the turbulence and lack of communication and confusion, the mirrors stay up and I have to say I’ve got a 6.x CentOS ISO sitting on my desk… somewhere.

Scientific Linux (http://www.scientificlinux.org/)

Scientific jumped pretty hard at CentOS last year when it took CentOS a LONG time to get their 6.0 release out. For the first time, people who had never really considered anything other than CentOS were scratching their head and wondering who this upstart from CERN was. Of course, SL is no upstart, being around since 2004. This 2011 inroad into CentOS-land was relatively short-lived, however.  In August, Troy Dawson announced that he was leaving the SL project to work for Red Hat on their new OpenShift project. Not long after that, rumors of lack of team cohesion and direction started to bubble up. Currently, SL’s most recent release is Scientific Linux 6.2 beta 2 (as of January 9, 2012).

AscendOS (http://www.ascendos.org/)

AscendOS is the new kid on the block in this neighborhood, hoping to have their first production release based on RHEL 6.3. I actually had a conversation via email with Andrew, one of the AscendOS team leaders. He confirmed that AscendOS is going through a lot of the growin pains of any new open source project. Those problems are, of course, the number of contributors and the amout of time those contributors can allocate to a project. AscendOS has some developer builds available for download, and are still actively working to refine their build process and environment. If you can and want to help an interesting new project, I highly encourage you to give this project a look.

While these aren’t by any stretch all of the RHEL-derived downstream distributions, these are the ones that most interest me currently. Are there any other interesting ones out there?

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Enterprise Linux by any other name

I’ve been doing a fair bit or reading and writing and talking about different versions of “Enterprise Linux”, and the more I talk and think about it, the more I come to realize that I’m not as comfortable with the definition of that phrase as I would like.

The current working definition of “Enterprise Linux” is a Linux distribution based off of the Source RPMs and build methods of RedHat Enterprise Linux. Essentially a group of people get together, put together a build infrastructure, and make a distribution using RedHat’s released sources. However, there are interpretations and changes made that make each of these distributions unique in their own right. CentOS has its issues, of course, but tries to stay as faithful as it can to the RedHat product. Scientific Linux seems to be a livelier group right now, but they’re truly making their distribution their own.

For example, SL doesn’t install the RedHat/Fedora Auto Bug Reporting Tool by default. While this is perfectly fine, it does make me wonder how if SL wants to push any bugs their community finds upstream or if they want to patch them within their own community. I was instructed by of the moderators at the SL forum site to contact one of the primary SL contributors about this, and I will. I’ll of course report back what I hear. I look forward to it.

I don’t know much about PISA’s philosophy, really. If someone knows more about the project team and their goals, I’d love to know.

AscendOS is just now getting off the ground, and their vision of building out an Enterprise Linux distribution without all of the baggage of the older communities. Noble, sure, but they’re still doing one thing like all the rest that may be worth examining. They’re all based off of what RedHat decides to do in their distribution.

I get the conventional wisdom, that if you follow RedHat’s lead, it’s easier to be compatible with RedHat. But it also piegon holes a distribution in to making mistakes that RedHat makes.

Now if you know me or have ever worked with me or talked to me for more than 3 minutes or been to a Richmond LUG meeting,  you’ll know that I’m a huge RedHat fanboy. I love how Shadowman goes about his business, and think they’re an admirable example of how to be a really good open source company. The RedHat product that really moved them into the limelight was RHEL 5. After coming out in 2007, it became the Linux standard in the Enterprise. But it had some serious shortcomings that proved at least annoying, and sometimes painful, for admins running it on a daily basis. The decisions that pop into my head are

  • holding on to Python 2.4 for so long
  • not including syslog-ng
  • not moving up to openldap 2.4
These are some of the first changes that happen to most any RHEL/CentOS 5.x installation that I control. I know RedHat had a good reason to maintain the older versions of python and ldap, and not including syslog-ng. But is it the best for an enterprise?
Should their be a distribution out there that relies more on sound principles than a specific company to guide their product? A community that tried to make the best distro available to run in a corporate environment.
Should we change how we define “Enterprise Linux” from “a RHEL-derived Linux distribution” to “A downstream Linux distribution that is optimized and hardened to work best in a corporate environment”. I guess that’s a pretty open-ended question, but I think it’s worth thinking.

AscendOS – new kid on the Enterprise block? But can he dance?

CentOS and Scientific Linux and Princeton’s Pisa, among others. What was once a simple (boring?) decision for Linux admins who wanted RHEL compatibility without RHEL’s various overheads, the neighborhood is becoming more and more crowded. And now, a completely new project is working its way out of the tall grass.

AscendOS, http://www.ascendos.org/, is in the process of forming and on initial inspection it offers a lot of promise. The reason this group has decided to form is pretty obvious from their website. They weren’t satisfied with the current offerings out in the world so they decided to give it a shot themselves.

Every distribution of EL has their own pros and cons. One may add additional stuff and have an open community, but may not be exactly 100% compatible with upstream. Another one may focus more on getting things out quicker, but is more obscure, and doesn’t do as much testing. Another one has name recognition, but tries so hard to be 100% compatible and perfect that the turnaround for a certain major release has become almost half a year since its original release. It’s just that varied.

I can’t really argue that a whole heck of a lot. Several of my past thoughts have been focused on some of the major Enterprise-level Linux distros out there. The effort seems to have started around June of this year, so it’s really just getting started.

A quick trip through their forums has the usual discussions about setting up their build environments and what to name their first releases. Not a ton of activity, but they seem to have some traction it seems within Scientific Linux and possibly some other distributions.

Right now AscendOS is mainly a desire to be a fresh take on process/workflow in how a group rebuilds RHEL. Most of their major points and goals are described in this forum post. I know there’s not a whole lot of information right now, but I wanted to make sure that I included them in the conversation as they get started on their journey.