Re-evaluating RHEL

June 25, 2023 AD

Last Wednesday, I woke up to news that IBM’s RedHat was ceasing public releases of source code for RedHat Enterprise Linux. Going forward, CentOS Stream will now be the sole repository for public RHEL-related source code releases.

Prior to last week, all the source RPMs for each RHEL release were published on When RedHat abruptly killed CentOS as we knew it in 2019 (requiescat in pace), the availability of these sources allowed fledgeling distros like Rocky and Alma Linux to quickly take its place.

Presumably, the bean-counters at RedHat were none too pleased with the proles’ clever workaround, and have decided to take their toys and go home. (I’m sure Rocky’s recent NASA contract didn’t help either.)

Much pontification has taken place on Twitter and the Fediverse regarding the ethical and legal implications of this move. I’m not going to rehash them, as I honestly find such things tedious and boring. The Software Freedom Conservancy has written a detailed analysis of the situation here.

To summarize: RedHat almost certainly has the right to do this, even if it is against the spirit of most free software licenses. At the moment, I’m more concerned about how this will affect my own projects.

I’m heavily invested in Rocky Linux.

I self-host my entire digital footprint on Rocky Linux. Email, XMPP, Matrix, VOIP, Mastodon, git repositories, network storage, web servers, desktops…everything runs on Rocky virtual machines.

I’ve spent the last year or so building out an Ansible framework to manage it all. Just as I was getting everything dialed in and perfected, RedHat pulled the rug yet again.

Switching to another Linux flavor is not trivial, since my entire infrastructure depends on FreeIPA for identity management. User accounts, groups, internal DNS records, sudo rules, and access control are all handled by FreeIPA. My Ansible framework is tightly coupled to the FreeIPA Ansible modules.

FreeIPA is developed and tested on RedHat-based distributions: Fedora, CentOS, and RHEL. While packages do exist for other distros, they’re definitely second-class citizens. I’d rather not depend on them for production use.

So what’s next?

With nearly all of my digital life dependent on a RHEL derivative, it’s time to re-evaluate my choice of operating system. Some options:

Stick with Rocky Linux?

This is definitely the easiest course of action, since it requires no additional work on my part. After all, Rocky and Alma have both assured us that updates will keep coming as usual, that this is a minor setback, and that everything will be fine. But realistically, what else could they say at this point?

It seems like both distros have currently found a way to keep pushing updates, but I haven’t seen any public statements about how exactly they’re accomplishing this (perhaps a strategic omission?).

To me, there’s three major downsides to sticking with a RHEL-derivative:

First, immediately after everyone got done migrating the CentOS 8, RedHat pulled the plug on CentOS.

Then, immediately after the CentOS replacements gained critical mass, RedHat pulled the rug on public source code!

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

All that being said, I’d really like to stick with Rocky if possible. It’s an incredible distro and really hits a sweet spot for professional features (SELinux, FreeIPA, RPM packaging), stability, active community, and long support cycles.

RHEL Developer Program?

Won’t work for me. I currently have no fewer than 37 Rocky Linux installs (mostly KVM virtual machines), but RedHat’s free tier only gives you a license for 16 hosts.

CentOS Stream?

My understanding of CentOS Stream is that it’s essentially a beta branch for the next point-release of RHEL. I’d like a distro where I run automatic updates and not concern myself with stuff breaking. It doesn’t sound like this is the case for Stream. Am I wrong?

RedHat asserts that To the untrained eye, CentOS Stream is already as stable as RHEL. If that is really the case, why did so many people jump to Rocky/Alma? Spite? (This is not sarcasm–I’m genuinely curious.)

CentOS Stream gets security updates through the RHEL full support phase (5.5 years). If Stream is truly as good as RHEL, but only for 5 years, then I’d consider this a viable option.

Ubuntu LTS?

Hard pass. /dev/null will soon be provided by a Snap package at the rate things are going.

Switch to Debian?

If Rocky disappears, Debian is probably the most logical choice. It’s been around forever with no corporate ties, and has near-universal package availability. In addition, I already run a Debian-based hypervisor (Proxmox).

There are some downsides though:

Maybe I’m exaggerating the issues with Debian-based FreeIPA, but I haven’t had good experiences with it in the past. I’ve also run Samba 4 in domain controller mode…don’t think I can go through that again.

Another option would be to roll a poor-man’s FreeIPA with OpenLDAP, BIND, a Kerberos KDC, and nslcd. This seems like a lot of work, but maybe it would pay off in the long run to be totally decoupled from RHEL?

FreeBSD? Illumos?!

A move to FreeBSD or an Illumos-based distro like OmniOS does have a certain Unix nostalgia appeal.

FreeBSD has jails, and each release is supported for 5 years. OmniOS has Solaris zones, which are amazing, but the LTS release only has a 3-year support window.

I would honestly prefer to use a real Unix, since Linux has run on the CADT model since the 2000s. Unfortunately, since we live in a Linux monoculture, using anything not-Linux means you must also become a package maintainer, and spend your days filing issue reports for your bespoke hipster Unix in various bug trackers.

I actually used to run my entire infrastructure on SmartOS, but it feels like betting on a losing horse at this point. Debian will almost certainly be around 10 years from now. Illumos…?

I’m mostly just annoyed.

The classic CentOS model was stable, reliable, and boring: the perfect platform for my self-hosted fiefdom. I have a regular $DAYJOB and a growing family–three small kids and counting! I need a low-maintenance distro that stays out of my way for long periods of time. So far, Rocky Linux has provided exactly that.

In the short term, I’ll keep my eyes on the RHEL situation and continue maintaining sacredheart-selfhosted as a Rocky Linux-based framework.

I don’t really care about bug-for-bug compatibility with RHEL. If Rocky, Alma, or Stream manages to emerge as some kind of community-favorite almost-RHEL with a longish support cycle, that’s what I’ll stick with. Otherwise, I see Debian in my future.