A New Enterprise Linux Alliance
Stephen Cass: Hello and welcome to Fixing the Future, an IEEE Spectrum podcast where we look at concrete solutions to some big problems. I’m your host, Stephen Cass, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. And before we start, I just want to tell you that you can get the latest coverage from some of Spectrum’s most important beats, including AI, climate change, and robotics, by signing up for one of our free newsletters. Just go to spectrum.ieee.org/newsletters to subscribe.
Today, our guest is Alan Clark from SUSE’s CTO office. SUSE is one of the oldest open-source companies in the world. I think I still have some SUSE Linux CD-ROMs from the 1990s lurking in a drawer myself. But it’s now a founding member of one of the newest trade associations, the Open Enterprise Linux Association, or OpenELA, along with Oracle and CIQ. We’re going to be talking with Alan about the crisis that prompted the creation of the OpenELA and how the new association hopes to address it. Alan, welcome to the show.
Alan Clark: Thanks, Stephen. It’s great to be here. And by the way, I wish I had kept those floppies and CDs from those old releases, just for the museum piece, right?
Cass: Yeah, they’re just deep, deep in a drawer in that. I cannot— can I toss that? No. No, I can’t. But I mentioned a crisis. For people who aren’t familiar with the world of enterprise Linux and the companies involved, can you explain what happened earlier this year that really upset a lot of people?
Clark: Yeah, so there was an action by Red Hat that upset a lot of people. We can talk about why, but it’s actually been a trend for quite a while. And then they made the announcement that they were going to remove public access to the RHEL source code. And that’s really contrary to open source principles and values, right? And so that created a lot of concerns amongst vendors, developers, and users of the technology, right?
Cass: So RHEL is Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
Cass: And why is it so important that it would cause so many people to go, “Bah”?
Clark: Well think about it from open-source perspectives, right? Open source has always had the meaning that I can take that and do things with it, right? I can create innovation and I can use it for the things that fit my need. And then all of a sudden now, they’ve switched the game and people are going, “Wait, will I not be able to use this anymore? Will I not be able to use it how I need it to be used, right? Is this going to kill my innovation?” And so that’s caused great consternation, not just from other vendors that are part of the ecosystem, but from users themselves.
Cass: And this is because Red Hat was also a very early entrant, it’s been around a long time, and so people have kind of coalesced around it in many ways. And so this was a bit of a shock to them.
Clark: It is a bit of a shock, and two aspects of that. One is you’re exactly correct, there’s a lot of people that have been using this technology for a long time and based their business on it. And then the second aspect, when you think about it, I’m sure it’s upwards of 90 percent of businesses are using open source today, right? So they’ve caught on to the benefits that open source brings, and then all of a sudden you’re saying, “Well, this isn’t quite so open,” and they’re going, “Wait, my business is built on those concepts of open source, and now you’re ripping that away. What does this mean to me?”
Cass: So maybe just for readers who might not be familiar, because Linux comes in so many different flavors. It’s found everywhere from satellites to mainframes. What is kind of the defining characteristic of enterprise Linux?
Clark: So enterprise Linux, and you’re correct, it does come in all kinds of flavors from very small to very large, right? The enterprise portion of this is that it’s ready to run your critical business processes, right? That’s what we define as being enterprise ready. So I can use it in a hobby situation, right? And there’s a lot of distros that are attuned to specific hobby needs, right? I know people that run HO scale railroad systems using Linux, for example. Well, if it has a fault and crashes, it’s not a big deal. You put the train back on the track and away it goes. If you’re using Linux for air traffic control, right, that has got to be really hardened and tested and secure. And so that’s what the enterprise portion of this means.
Cass: So can you talk a little bit about the genesis of OpenELA? So we have this controversy, people are unhappy with what Red Hat has been doing. How is it that Oracle and CIQ and SUSE kind of like pick up the bat phone and call each other and start this ball rolling?
Clark: Well, so their announcement spurred us to say, “Oh, we should do something and we should react to this.” But on the other hand, part of this has come about just because the power of collaboration, right? And the simplest aspect of that is we’re reducing cost, right, by sharing that cost. And those are the costs of getting a code and assembling it and putting it in a format where we can consume it. It’s not a market differentiator. And so by sharing that cost amongst us, we’ve reduced it for everybody, and it makes it quicker to market, reduces our costs. The other aspect of it is— that I think is key and why we really want others and others want to come join us is we’re preventing the market from fragmenting, right? Like you said, there’s all kinds of distros out there, but we’re looking to continue on with this enterprise Linux standard that Red Hat has set. And if we all go off and do our own little thing, there’s a chance it’ll fragment. And we know what happens when that occurs, right? You look back at the Unix days and you cause that fragmentation and all of a sudden you can’t get applications and services that work on everybody’s distros, right? By pulling together, unifying together, we’re going to keep that market whole.
Cass: And what is now OpenELA actually going to do in concrete terms in terms of stopping that fragmentation from happening and maintaining a standard sort of independent of Red Hat’s current offerings?
Clark: Yeah. So the first thing— one of the big things we’re working on is creating a neutral legal body, right, so that it’s not controlled by any single vendor, right? So we’ve all come together, big, small, whatever, it doesn’t matter. We’re all going to be equal players, right? So that’s key in building good open source practices. So the second thing we’ve done or are working on is building the ability to have the source code that is, we’ll call it pristine. It’s in line and in tune with what Red Hat has been producing, right? And we will keep that compatibility. We want to keep that compatibility. And so we’re setting up the code repository so that we can keep that compatibility. But then we’re also setting them up so that innovation can occur. And so I’ll be able to come in there and say, “I just want to stay in step with the standard that Red Hat is setting. And that’s what I want. I don’t want anything else.” Others will be able to come in and say, “I want to contribute this piece.” And they’ll be able to pick up that as well as the one-to-one compatibility. So those are the big things we’re working on right now.
Cass: When the announcement was made to launch OpenELA, you did say, yes, it’s going to be under control of a nonprofit board of directors and the bylaws will be published shortly. So how are the formation of the board and the creation of the bylaws going?
Clark: They’re coming along quite well, actually. I smile because this is one of those things that always takes longer than you want, right? But they are coming along. Legal things are always slow, slower than you want them to be. But they’re moving along quite well. We’ve actually are pushing ahead with a stronger– I wouldn’t say stronger. Very concerted effort to get the technical stuff done, because that’s really the proof of it, right, that we can actually get the code out there and make it available to everybody. So we’ve been putting a really large amount of effort into getting that completed as well.
Cass: And how is that development? You talked about organizing source code, and also there’s creation of software tooling that has to go along with that. How is that work going? I mean, is it being evenly distributed across sort of the three founders, or is one group taking a lead at this particular moment, or is it all being done in parallel? How is that work being done?
Clark: It’s working out very well. You recognize that these companies have been doing this for years, right? So we don’t have to reinvent everything, right, or invent everything. It’s already being done. So it’s more a matter of taking the best of everything we’ve got and putting it into a format that we know will be usable by everybody. So we don’t have to start from scratch. We’re able to pick up a lot of the tools and stuff that are already being used and tune them and modify them to fit OpenELA.
Cass: So OpenELA was founded just a couple of months ago, so I appreciate it’s very early days. But what kind of response have you had from the wider community?
Clark: It’s been very positive, really positive. We have a lot of people that are anxious to get started. A lot of people have been pinging us going, “Hey, we want to contribute. We want to join. How do I do that?” And we’re going, “Hang on just a little bit longer, just a little bit longer.” We really got to get that legal entity so that it’s a neutral body, right? We don’t want it to be not neutral. So we got to get those rules down on how people can join and so forth. So they’re coming out really soon, so.
Cass: So looking to the future, we talked about maintaining the sort of enterprise Linux standard, which is closely based on the Red Hat de facto standard. Do you foresee a time in the future where maybe those might diverge? And so you have the OpenELA enterprise Linux standard, and then over here is RHELs. And maybe those two aren’t tightly as coupled before. One is RHELs thing, and the other is this open source community thing.
Clark: I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know what will happen. Right now, our mission is that we will stay one-to-one compatible with them. If they make some decisions that personally, I believe would actually very much hurt them, themselves, right, self-inflicted wounds kind of thing, it’s possible they could do something. But you also have to remember that everything we’re dealing with here is open source, right? And it’s open source that SUSE has been contributing to, like you said, what, 30-something years? Oracle, the same thing, they contributed for years and years and years in CIQ and all these other community members. So it’s all open source. So unless they do something really dramatic and go proprietary, even more proprietary, right, it all feeds back upstream. So it’s all going to be available. So I’m not overly worried about it, given their current decisions, that we’ll be able to stay one-to-one compatible.
Cass: So just I want to step back for a moment while I have you and just look at some big question issues. I talk about Linux in the ‘90s, and the first time I touched a Linux machine was as an undergraduate in the early ‘90s, when it was this very fascinating, if somewhat clunky thing. And we’ve had this evolution with people like Linus Torvalds has been the guy for 30 years and so on. And we’re kind of— I know I’m not as young as I used to be, and we’re kind of coming to this generation inflection point with Linux, where sort of a new cadre of people are coming up and using it. What are your thoughts about how sort of open source has evolved in 30 years? Is it recognizable from those early days to what is now? And where do you think it’s going to go as we start to see people in the next 10, 15 years start to retire and a new generation take over?
Clark: Well, the beauty of open source is sometimes people say, “Well, it’s like herding cats,” because you’ve got so many people involved, right, and they’re all there to serve their own needs, right? Some will say that’s bad. I say that’s really good. But what it’s proven out over the years— and yeah, it has changed, it’s grown, right? I’ve seen these projects. Some of these projects that I’m involved with have thousands of engineers, right? And a couple of things that I’ve seen happen over the years is they’ve become very diverse geographically and people wise, just the different varying talents and skills and backgrounds has really grown over the years. And the big thing is, is I’ve seen this talent emerge. And because of the collaborative nature, it’s not that a single person has all the knowledge, right? I’ve worked in proprietary software, and you end up depending on this key guy that knows it all, right? And the company sits and worries about what if the train hits this guy tomorrow and he dies? What’s the company going to do, right? The stock will crash or whatever. I’m not as worried about that with open source, because there’s so much. It’s so open and transparent that people with all these different talents are able to come in and become a real critical piece to this. And so I think that with that talent pool, I’m not worried about the future of open source. It’ll just keep rolling on. We’ve got some real good leaders today. I do not want to see them disappear, right? People like Linus, they are a key, they are really key. But open source will continue to grow and move on.
Cass: So I just want to finish up. Is there any question you think I should have asked you, which I haven’t asked you?
Clark: That’s always the catch-all question, isn’t it? No, I think we’ve talked about a lot of good things. I’m just very excited about the future of open source and the potential that it brings, right, the innovation. I see all these new concepts. I remember when I first started, I started in engineering and networking, right? And TCP/IP developed and everybody says, “It’s done.” Right? “TCP/IP, it’s done. Let’s all move on to something else.” Right? And then all of a sudden it was like, oh, wait a minute, we didn’t write TCP/IP with enough addresses to cover the world. We never envisioned that everybody would have 10 devices in their house, let alone 100. And all of a sudden, you got to invent again, right? And so I just think there’s so much new technology to be invented that I’m very excited about the future.
Cass: Wonderful. So today we were talking with Alan Clark of SUSE. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Clark: Thank you, Stephen.
Cass: And Alan was talking about the new OpenLinux Enterprise Association. And for more information on that, you can visit their website, which is openela.org, I believe.
Cass: And yeah, please come back and check out in two weeks’ time another episode of Fixing the Future here from IEEE Spectrum.