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19 April 2012, 12:48

HealthCheck Fedora: Where's the beef?

by Richard Hillesley

With Fedora 17 about to be released, Richard Hillesley examines its early history, relationship with its commercial sponsor and role in the current landscape of Linux distributions.

Fedora is the community distribution sponsored by Red Hat and is approaching the date for its next release. Fedora 17 is to be known as Beefy Miracle, which is a contentious break from the Fedora tradition of giving each release a name that shares a relationship with the name of the previous release. Beefy Miracle's only link with Verne (Fedora 16) is that both were proposed as names for Fedora 16. The virtue of the name is that it is a meme that has been circulating for some time, and is meant to be a bit of fun.

"The user will be amused by the constant presence of the Hot Dog. The mustard indicates progress."

Unsurprisingly, not everyone on the Fedora mailing lists is happy with this approach, and some have called for an end to the naming of releases because of the difficulty of finding a name for each release that is culturally neutral and pleases everybody.

Fedora is one of the more popular Linux distributions, and the most popular of the RPM-based distros. But, although it is sponsored by a large company in the shape of Red Hat, Fedora differs from a distribution like Ubuntu in that it has no top-down commercial imperative to please a particular segment of the community, to be "easy-to-use" or to fit for any singular commercial purpose.

Fedora is uncompromisingly free software, community-based, and innovative, and its role is to push the edges of technology and reflect the state of the art of free software. Red Hat is the most successful open source company and Fedora is its bleeding edge, hoping to bring together the best and newest free software on a six monthly release cycle, some of which might make it into the next release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), and some of which may be picked up later as the software matures.

This willingness to be near the cutting edge gives rise to the myth that Fedora is unstable because it is "often running in uncharted innovative territory", but, adventurous or otherwise, the distro goes through extensive quality testing procedures and a long pre-release schedule which, Fedora users claim, makes it just as reliable as any other Linux distribution.

A downside to this approach is that Fedora hasn't had a long term support option equivalent to Ubuntu's LTS releases since the demise of Fedora Legacy in 2006. Each version of Fedora is supported for 13 months. Every fourth release of Ubuntu is supported for five years. Inevitably, lack of long term support is a disincentive to some commercial users, who may prefer to use the production-engineered fork RHEL or one of the clones: CentOS, Scientific Linux or Oracle Linux. But as Jon Stanley noted back in 2008 at a time when there was much hand wringing about Wikipedia's move from Fedora to Ubuntu: "Fedora's stated goal is to advance the state of free software. You get that by being bleeding-edge. Unfortunately, being bleeding edge also means not being suitable for production environments – these are two fundamentally incompatible goals. This is why Red Hat Linux split into two – Fedora and RHEL."

"Fedora exists to foster innovation, with this mission sometimes comes breakage."

Tipping the hat

Red Hat Linux was founded in 1994 by Marc Ewing, and merged with Bob Young's ACC Linux and Unix software accessory business in 1995. The merged company was renamed Red Hat Software, and as it grew, Young worked "in my wife's sewing closet in Connecticut, and Marc in a spare room in his apartment in Durham (North Carolina)", churning out new releases and distributing the brand, free CDs, hats and t-shirts. Four years later Red Hat went public and achieved "the eighth-biggest first-day gain in Wall Street history".

Young had put Red Hat on the map, and would say "I'm building a brand", according to Jon "maddog" Hall, but nobody listened. "By the time people recognised what he was doing it was too late. He had built the Red Hat brand to the point where a lot of people in the US would say 'Red Hat is Linux, and Linux is Red Hat'. Like Kleenex and tissues, and Heinz and ketchup..."

Red Hat prospered because it stayed close to the rapidly growing Linux user and developer communities, and the distribution was resolutely free software and well put together. Red Hat's most notable innovation during this time was the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM - later renamed to RPM Package Manager). By the time Linux began to take off in commercial environments at the end of the decade, Red Hat had claimed over fifty per cent of the Linux market in the US, and was perfectly positioned to take advantage.

Red Hat's IPO may have been propitious, but there was plenty of scepticism. Although Red Hat claimed ascendancy in the Linux market, its total income in the last year before the IPO was a mere $10.8 million, and it had made a net loss for the year of $130,000. Selling Linux in a box wasn't going to satisfy the huge expectations of its shareholders or sate its own ambitions.

As one commentator noted, in the pre-broadband era, one of Red Hat's main selling points was that users would buy Linux in a box because it "saves users the 36-hour download time it takes to transfer Linux from the Web. Should transmission technology improve anytime soon... users 'may no longer choose to purchase official Red Hat Linux.'"

The answer was to remodel itself as a service company, selling subscriptions to an enterprise version of Linux that came with a longer, more stable, upgrade cycle. Red Hat Linux was replaced by RHEL, the enterprise version, and Fedora, the community version, which more closely resembled Red Hat Linux and was no longer sold in shrink-wrapped boxes.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux saw benefits from the work of the upstream community, and the community gained Fedora. "Fedora doesn't make any promises," Michael Tiemann said at the time. "The Enterprise product makes the promise that when it's released, that code will be good for seven years. We've got the update cycle, and a variety of other things that allow people to buy new hardware while staying on a common platform."

"What Fedora does is to provide an opportunity for people who want to influence the technology, or participate or evaluate. Fedora is not for production use, because by itself, Fedora has no production model. There's no API compatibility. We don't stop people from offering support on Fedora... But if you're interested in having something which is long-term supportable, you have to do your homework, and that's what we do in RHEL."

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