Linux may be a free operating system, but the days of free copying may be numbered for Red Hat customers who, as of this spring, will no longer be able to receive support from Red Hat without purchasing a support license for every version of Red Hat's server software that they run.
The company sent a letter to its customers last week announcing that, effective April 30, 2004, it would cease maintenance of its other Linux product, Red Hat Linux 9. As of that date, 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 software license: the GPL (GNU General Public License).
While the GPL lets users freely make as many copies of Linux as they like, Red Hat's services agreement compels customers to pay an annual per-system licensing fee in order to receive bug fixes, patches and technical support. The agreement also prohibits the unauthorized 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.
This new license model has some users 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 Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with IDC.
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 says that 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 in Threshold's Santa Monica, California, offices, compared 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.
Johnsen 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 like a Web or file and print server.
While many enterprise customers are content to pay the per-system licensing that accompanies Red Hat Enterprise Linux -- fees that run between US$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 license does not include technical support, Lawrence Livermore would have to pay even more money if it wanted the same level of technical support it currently receives with Red Hat 9, Goldstone said.
A number of other high performance computing installations are balking at Red Hat's Enterprise Linux support plan, according to Pete Beckman, the director of engineering for Argonne National Labs TeraGrid project. In fact, a number of high performance computing users are planning 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 that 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 freely copy Red Hat Enterprise Linux, it also says it considers unauthorized 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," wrote Sims in an e-mail interview.
Red Hat and companies like Suse Linux, which was recently purchased by Novell Inc. and has a similar enterprise Linux licensing model, are pushing these per system licensing plans because, as the software industry has proved, they're highly profitable, said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. But, he adds, it's 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 license is premature in this market," he said.
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. Though the company has not completed its evaluation, IT Director Joe Pagliaccio said that 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," he said.
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. In large companies Linux is mainly used for highly replicated infrastructure applications like Web or file and print servers, he said.
For those customers who are pushing back on the pricing model, Red Hat is beginning to show some flexibility. The company is developing new 8-processor support licenses that designed to have a more appealing price for high performance computing users, according to Day. 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' Pete 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 license, and he would like to see a price structure that better accommodates the needs of his class of user.
Beckman believes he is not alone with his concerns. "I don't know of any site that has lots of processors that plans on buying a per processor license," he said.