Linux may be a free operating system, but the days of free copying may be numbered for Red Hat customers who, as of next spring, will no longer be able to receive support from Red Hat without purchasing a support licence for every version of Red Hat's server software that they run.
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Last week, the company sent a letter to its customers announcing that from 30 April 2004, it would cease maintenance of its other Linux product, Red Hat Linux 9. After that, Red Hat Enterprise Linux will be the only version of the server software available for purchase.
But Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which was designed as a more business-friendly successor to the traditional Red Hat Linux, comes with a different support contract than Red Hat Linux 9, one that some users say is in conflict with the spirit of Linux's GNU General Public Licence (GPL).
While the GPL lets users make as many copies of Linux as they like for free, Red Hat's services agreement compels customers to pay an annual per-system licensing fee to receive bug fixes, patches and technical support.
The agreement also prohibits the unauthorised copying of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and grants Red Hat permission to conduct on-site software audits for a year after the support contract expires.
Some users are up in arms. "I'm hearing more than a little discontentment from the open-source community about Red Hat's approach to support and requiring limitations that are far more stringent than the GPL," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky.
Users are unhappy because, with the end of Red Hat Linux 9, they will no longer have the option of purchasing incident-based support plans that place no restrictions on the number of copies they can make. With Red Hat Enterprise Linux, customers must either pay the per-system fee, or seek support from somewhere else.
Red Hat claimed its new licensing model makes support costs more predictable, but some users see it as a step backward.
"It's kind of odd that the most advanced operating system that we've got is using the worst financial model from the 1970s," said George Johnsen, the chief animation and technical officer with Threshold Digital Research Labs, a digital animation firm.
Johnsen, who is building a Linux-based image rendering facility, likened Red Hat's licensing to the mainframe licensing model, saying that it was cumbersome and failed to take into account the economics of large-scale computer users.
He is typical of a growing class of Linux users: customers who purchase a large number of identically configured commodity systems to process large amounts of data in areas such as petroleum exploration or scientific research, or to run a widely used "network edge" application such as a web or file and print server.
While many enterprise customers are content to pay the per-system licensing which accompanies Red Hat Enterprise Linux - fees that range from between $179 and $18,000 per system - some customers, especially those who cluster together a large number of computers, are balking at adopting the fees.
For Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has been paying Red Hat's professional services group a flat rate for on-site support of Red Hat Linux, the switch to the Enterprise Linux pricing model is daunting.
"The base price for Enterprise Linux is $179 per system, " said Robin Goldstone, the group leader of Lawrence Livermore's Production Linux Group. "We have 4,000 nodes worth right now. That's almost $800,000."
Because the $179 Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS Basic Edition licence does not include technical support, Lawrence Livermore would have to pay even more money if it wanted the same level of technical support it receives with Red Hat 9, Goldstone said.
A number of other high-performance computing installations are unhappy with Red Hat's Enterprise Linux support plan, according to Pete Beckman, the director of engineering for Argonne National Labs TeraGrid project. Some of them intend to hold a meeting at next week's SC2003 supercomputing conference in Phoenix to discuss problems they are having with Enterprise Linux licensing.
But Beckman says that the reluctance to adopt Red Hat Enterprise Linux's licensing terms is not only about cost. Users are also confused about what kind of software copying is permitted under the nine-page Red Hat Advanced Server and Services Agreement which accompanies the product.
"People don't quite understand the licensing restrictions," he said. "Someone has to come up with the document that explains what you can and can't do with the software you purchased."
While Red Hat says the GPL gives customers the right to copy Red Hat Enterprise Linux freely, it also says it considers unauthorised copying to be a violation of its service contract - something that could lead to a breach of contract lawsuit, according to Bryan Sims, Red Hat's vice president and associate legal counsel.
"If you copy the Red Hat Enterprise Linux software, we expect you to pay for the subscription because of the services you are receiving on those copies," he said.
Red Hat and companies like Suse Linux, which was recently purchased by Novell and has a similar enterprise Linux licensing model, are pushing these per-system licensing plans because, as the software industry has proved, they are highly profitable, said IDC analyst Kusnetzky.
But, he adds, it is unclear whether or not the Linux community, which has had a hand in developing the software, will go along. "You could make the case that pushing for the per-node kind of licence is premature in this market."
Red Hat's spokeswoman Leigh Day demurred. "Customers have seen this as a rational model. Not only are you getting technology, but you're getting maintenance and support," she said.
Some users agree, especially those who are migrating from more expensive Risc-based systems running the Aix or Solaris versions of Unix.
Employment services company Adecco is looking at running a database of half a million payroll accounts on Itanium 2 systems running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0. Although the company has not completed its evaluation, IT director Joe Pagliaccio believed Red Hat's software licensing is a reasonable expense.
"We're running it on not that many servers," Pagliaccio said. "Because of the criticality of what we're doing and because we're saving so much money, the amount you pay really isn't that significant."
But customers like Pagliaccio - those looking to run Linux on a small number of processors for mission-critical database applications - do not represent the majority of Linux users right now, according to Kusnetzky, pointing out that in large companies, Linux is mainly used for highly replicated infrastructure applications such as web or file and print servers.
For those customers who are pushing back on the pricing model, Red Hat is beginning to show some flexibility. The company is developing new eight-processor support licences designed to have a more appealing price for high-performance computing users, according to Day, although she could not say when such a product offering would be available.
It will take more than that to win over customers like Argonne National Labs' Beckman, however. He would like to see Red Hat produce a plain English document that explains what users can and cannot copy under the Enterprise Linux support licence, and he would like to see a price structure that better accommodates the needs of his class of user.
"I don’t know of any site that has lots of processors that plans on buying a per-processor licence," he said.
Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service