RHEL and its Linux relatives and rivals: how to choose

RHEL and its Linux relatives and rivals: how to choose

Man at computer workstation


Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) from Red Hat and related distributions, such as AlmaLinux OS, Oracle Linux, and Rocky Linux. Additionally, there are Red Hat’s own RHEL variants, CentOS Stream, and Fedora. Mea culpa. It’s confused. Let me help you sort things out.

To start with the basics, these are all open source Linux distributions. This means that anyone – yes, even you – can take the RHEL source code and create your own RHEL-based distribution. Beware, this is much easier said than done.

You see, you can’t just pull code from a Git repository and compile it. It would be far too easy. Instead, starting in 2011, Red Hat incorporated its own patches directly into its kernel tree. All the code is still there, but, as one person said at the time, “It’s kind of like asking someone for a recipe for the family chocolate chip cookies and getting dough cookies instead.”


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For years, that didn’t stop those who were capable of recipe archeology from discovering the code. Oracle, for example, has been copying RHEL into its Oracle Linux since 2006.

However, many people have used a community RHEL distribution called Community Enterprise Operating System (CentOS) instead of Oracle Linux. Founded by Gregory Kurtzer, it was the most successful of the early RHEL clones. Indeed, CentOS has proven to be much more popular than RHEL in such critical markets as web servers.

Why? Simple. CentOS doesn’t cost you a penny. If you use RHEL for commercial purposes, you must pay a license fee. It’s the difference everyone can see. The hidden difference, and why Red Hat became the first billion-dollar Linux company, and then IBM shelled out $34 billion for the company, is that many companies need the top-notch support that Red Hat provides to its RHEL customers.

Many, but not all. Indeed, RHEL doesn’t even have the majority of the RHEL operating system family’s customer base. Indeed, if you just need an RHEL-style operating system for something simple like web or desktop servers, you can easily find web and system administrators who can get CentOS running without any outside help. The same goes for anyone who doesn’t do any fancy programming. Many developers know how to build software around the RHEL family.

Red Hat knows it. So, first, the company adopted CentOS in 2014. CentOS continued its free license, while Red Hat hoped to persuade CentOS users to become RHEL customers. It did not work.

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So, in late 2020, Red Hat transitioned CentOS from a stable RHEL clone to a rolling Linux distribution, CentOS Stream. Also, it was planned that while Red Hat would continue to support the old version of CentOS 7 until at least June 30, 2024, the new version of CentOS 8, instead of being supported until 2029, would run out of support at the end of 2021. .

It went like a lead balloon with the hundreds of thousands of CentOS users.

As one user pointed out, “The use case for CentOS is completely different than CentOS Stream. Many, many people use CentOS for production enterprise workloads, not development. CentOS Stream may be fine for dev/test, but it’s unlikely people are going to adopt CentOS Stream for production.”

Nevertheless, Chris Wright, CTO of Red Hat, said, “CentOS Stream is stable enough for production.” Still, Wright added, “CentOS Stream now sits between the operating system innovation of the Fedora project and the production stability of RHEL.”

I guess that means CentOS Stream is stable enough for adventurous businesses that value the latest features rather than a guarantee of rock-solid stability. Fedora, of course, remains Red Hat’s Linux community for developers and users who want to be at the forefront of the RHEL family.

But, where does that leave old CentOS users? For them, there are two major choices: AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux.

Remember when I said people were ticked off by Red Hat’s CentOS Stream movement? Two prominent Linux developers, CloudLinux Founder and CEO Igor Seletskiy and CentOS Founder and CIQ CEO Gregory Kurtzer decided to react by creating new RHEL clones. The two decided that the old CentOS should return.

As Seletskiy put it then, “The demise of the stable version of CentOS left a very big void in the Linux community, which prompted CloudLinux to step in and launch a CentOS alternative.” CloudLinux, for those unfamiliar with it, is a commercial RHEL clone, but it’s specifically designed for Linux web hosting. AlmaLinux is a free community Linux.

Rocky Linux is governed by the Rocky Enterprise Software Foundation (RESF), a Type B corporation. The idea here, Kurtzer said, is that “open source projects should not be subject to corporate control or agendas. commercial”. project does not have a single individual behind it or even a massive company behind it; what makes it successful is having many people and many companies supporting and managing it collectively, in accordance with shared interests. That’s our goal with Rocky Linux and the RESF from day one. The RESF Charter and Bylaws reflect our intent that neither Rocky Linux nor any RESF project will ever be controlled, purchased, or otherwise influenced by any single entity or individual.

Now, both groups offer support for their RHEL clones, but you don’t have to pay a dime to use them. As Kurtzer observed, “Support is the first offering in our open source product line. We can offer several support models, but the one that’s most interesting and appreciated is ‘by person’ rather than by the core, node, socket, or right. In this model, we support people by providing a level of escalation beyond what they could access now.”

Both organizations are also working hard to synchronize their releases with those of Red Hat. So, for example, Red Hat released RHEL 8.7 and RHEL 9.1 in November. AlmaLinux 8.7 and AlmaLinux 9.1 and Rocky Linux 8.7 and Rocky Linux 9.1 followed closely.

So which is the right one for you? It depends on your needs.

Also: How to Choose the Right Linux Desktop Distribution

If you need serious enterprise support, RHEL has plenty to offer. If your business is Oracle focused, you might as well use Oracle Linux.

Next, I’m not crazy about using CentOS Stream for production, but if you need the latest and greatest Linux features and have in-house expertise, go for it. If you’re a developer and are happy living on the cutting edge of technology, say hello to Fedora. Please just don’t use it on production servers.

Finally, if you and your team have cut their teeth on the old CentOS, AlmaLinux or Rocky Linux are excellent choices. Personally, I’m moving my servers from CentOS 7 to Rocky Linux 8.7, but you won’t go wrong with either.

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