Red Hat May Be Stacking The Deck Against Its OpenStack Rivals

OpenStack is an open-source alternative to Amazon Web Services for building and managing public and private clouds. The key is that it’s open—you can compile, manage and customize the OpenStack code yourself, or you can contract with vendors who will do that for you. And you can run it on any computing platform you like.

At least that’s what people expect in the open source world. Red Hat, though, may have other ideas.

See also: Why OpenStack Needs Red Hat

The open-source vendor makes its money primarily by offering service to corporate customers who run their businesses on Red Hat’s version of the Linux operating system. But it stepped into an open-source buzzsaw earlier this week when an internal Red Hat document surfaced that suggested the company is trying to block its Linux customers from using competing (i.e., non-Red Hat) versions of OpenStack.

Exactly what Red Hat is up to isn’t fully clear. Its rivals worry that it’s disadvantaging other OpenStack providers by tying support of its Linux systems to use of Red Hat’s OpenStack implementation. But it’s also still possible, if increasingly unlikely, that Red Hat is simply making clear that it won’t support rival OpenStack setups—saying, in effect, that its customers are free to do what they want, but that Red Hat won’t help out if those OpenStack deployments go awry.

See also: Why Red Hat Needs OpenStack

Red Hat could clear up those concerns with a few simple, unadorned sentences. Unfortunately, everything it’s said to date has mostly just muddied the waters further. Here’s what we know at this point.

Painting A Bullseye On Mirantis

The first company in Red Hat’s crosshairs appears to be Mirantis, an OpenStack pioneer that Red Hat backed as part of a $10 million funding round almost a year ago. That investment, however, hasn’t kept the companies close. According to an internal and confidential FAQ obtained by ReadWrite, Red Hat has instructed its workforce to take a hard line against Mirantis OpenStack running running on Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL):

Do not work with Mirantis. They are a Red Hat competitor. We should not engage them jointly with any customers or leverage their services for delivery of our products. Be very clear with customers that RHEL is not supported as a guest on Mirantis OpenStack, and that Mirantis OpenStack is not supported running on RHEL.

That document, which apparently dates back to last November, effectively asserts that Red Hat won’t support desktop computers and other clients running RHEL if used in conjunction with Mirantis OpenStack. Its author also trash-talked Mirantis OpenStack:

Mirantis OpenStack is a compile-and-ship distribution of OpenStack bits that installs on an unoptimized Linux operating system. Mirantis also makes downstream modifications to enhance the performance of their proprietary toolset, at the expense of upstream compatibility. Mirantis contributes to OpenStack only at the margins: Hadoop on OpenStack and hooks into their toolset. They have no credibility in supporting Linux or fixing issues that occur in the Linux part of an OpenStack environment. Mirantis is a services company that is shipping a product to enable its services.

The Wall Street Journal cited the internal memo in a recent story and quoted Hewlett-Packard chief technology officer Martin Fink accusing Red Hat of “taking the art of closed open source tactics to a new level.”

Red Hat responded to the WSJ story with a muddled blog post by Paul Cormier, president of product and technology at Red Hat. Cormier reaffirmed Red Hat’s open source philosophy and insisted that talk of “closed open source” amount to FUD spread by Red Hat’s rivals. Yet he somehow managed not to clearly state whether Red Hat will support customers who use other flavors of OpenStack.

While Cormier wrote this—

To be clear, users are free to deploy Red Hat Enterprise Linux with any OpenStack offering, and there is no requirement to use our OpenStack technologies to get a Red Hat Enterprise Linux subscription.

—students of logic might notice that his statement stops short of affirming that Red Hat will honor its support agreement if customers opt for rival OpenStack technologies instead. More on this point in a moment.

Who’s Next?

Members of the OpenStack Foundation, a developer organization that oversees the project, reacted with alarm to the notion that Red Hat might be wielding its clout in the paid Linux market, where it holds a 64% share, as a weapon. Some commenters likened its attack on Mirantis to Microsoft’s crushing of Netscape almost two decades ago, after the software giant tied its Internet Explorer browser to Windows to ensure its ubiquity.

Mirantis CEO Adrian Ionel told me it’s extremely difficult for Red Hat customers to run non-Red Hat distributions of OpenStack on Red Hat Enterprise Linux. “It requires specific patches, and if you apply these patches, you invalidate your support contract,” Ionel said. “Red Hat wants to leverage their OS dominance, and they’re taking a page from the Microsoft playbook—integrating OpenStack into the OS, so companies get better value when they use RHEL.”

Which might be great for Red Hat customers who use just Red Hat software—just not so much for those who want features found in rival OpenStack distributions.

Red Hat vs. Red Hat

HP, which also competes with Red Hat’s OpenStack implementation, also wants Red Hat to clarify exactly what it’s up to, per this blog post by CTO Martin Fink:

It’s not clear whether Red Hat is drawing an artful distinction between deployment, subscription and support, or if Red Hat will actually provide support for RHEL to customers who don’t use Red Hat OpenStack technologies with RHEL. Therefore, I would encourage Red Hat to confirm whether it will support RHEL if a customer is running a non-Red Hat version of an OpenStack offering on that copy of RHEL.

It turns out that Red Hat may have the freedom to withhold support if it wants. An appendix to Red Hat’s support contract notes the following:

Red Hat Enterprise Linux is supported solely when used as the host operating system for Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Platform or when used as the guest operating system on virtual machines created and managed with this Subscription…. Red Hat Enterprise Linux is currently the only supported operating system for Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Platform.

Similar language appears several times throughout the appendix in sections related to licenses for Red Hat Cloud Infrastructure, Red Hat Cloud Infrastructure without guest OS, Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Platform, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Platform for Controller Nodes. It suggests that Red Hat could withhold RHEL support from customers using alternative OpenStack implementations without violating its support agreement. Also, if you recall the loophole in the earlier statement by Red Hat’s Paul Cormier—well, it’s also consistent with that.

When I asked Red Hat to explain its stance on RHEL support in plain English, the company send me yet another oblique, jargon-laden statement, this time from Tim Yeaton, Red Hat’s senior VP for infrastructure. I’ve included at the end of the post in its entirety. Feel free to scroll down and read it at your leisure; suffice to say, it’s not terribly enlightening.

The Closing Of OpenStack, Maybe

OpenStack advocates fear that Red Hat can sow some serious damage if it plays hardball this way. “It makes non-Red Hat OpenStack vendors less competitive against OpenStack alternatives, which they might lose to now unless an alternative to RHEL-level support appears,” Dave Nielsen, a cloud-computing evangelist and consultant, whose former clients include HP and Mirantis, wrote in the OpenStack Foundation forum.

Unsurprisingly, Red Hat’s competitors are playing up the controversy for all it’s worth. Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu Linux company Canonical, told me that in this week’s OpenStack Summit Survey, five out of six “super user” profiles were building their clouds with Ubuntu. The other was on CentOS.

To Shuttleworth, that’s an indication that companies are “comfortable with a move away from RHEL for this new era of Linux,” he told me via email. “RHEL’s lock on mindshare for mission critical Linux is coming to an end.”

Of course, Shuttleworth has been saying much the same thing for years. But if Red Hat is starting to play the heavy in open source, you never know—it might finally turn out to be true.

Red Hat’s Latest Statement

As promised above, here’s that statement from Red Hat VP Tim Yeaton:

RHEL guests are certified to hypervisor platforms, such as KVM, not to OpenStack per se. OpenStack is the control layer that manages multiple hypervisors, and KVM is the default.

RHEL guests are certified to run on other supported hypervisors, such as those from VMWare and Microsoft, based on established support relationships.

In the case of RHEL OSP, we in turn support other guest OS’ on our embedded KVM, based on the providers’ ability to provide mission critical support in partnership with us. Under this model, we support guests today including Windows and SUSE Linux, since both have large software development and support organizations, as well as support relationships with us.

Since we are in the business of building mission-critical cloud infrastructure, delivering on stringent SLAs for enterprise customers based on RHEL, KVM, and OpenStack, we must take responsibility for enterprise-readiness and supportability of our RHEL guests on other vendors’ hypervisors within their OpenStack platforms, and the underlying Linux that is being used within them. Our ability to fully and confidently support customers’ mission-critical environments—top-to-bottom—is paramount, particularly in on-premises private cloud deployments where the underlying technologies are complex. The expertise and experience to do this for OpenStack customers was built via our nearly two decades of experience with RHEL in mission-critical customer environments.

Everything clear now?

Nielsen, the OpenStack evangelist, said he found Red Hat’s statements confounding. After reading them over and over, he said Red Hat seems to be differentiating between the hypervisor and the OpenStack platform, which “technically is bullshit. They can make that distinction because it sounds different, but technically, it’s not. Then the question comes down to are they going to have support for, or work out an arrangement with any other partners?”

I asked Red Hat one more question: Does Red Hat have relationships with any OpenStack vendor similar to the relationships with Microsoft and VMware at the hypervisor level? Red Hat provided a response from Yeaton: “Not at this time.”

Lead image of Red Hat executive Paul Cormier by Flickr user Red Hat, CC 2.0

Update: An earlier version of this story neglected to mention that Dave Nielsen is a former consultant for HP and Mirantis.

Facebook Comments