Linux distributions are a common choice for running the servers. There's a wide variety of distributions, but on the servers majority is made by only a few.
Some corporations also profit from the support of the “big” distributions. Let's dive into the pros, cons and peculiarities of such business.
You may take my opinion with a grain of salt, since I'm affiliated with Red Hat, but at the same time I've also seen the other side of the fence, so I know how it works from the perspective of the provider/maintainer.
If you are not very oriented in the matters of Linux distributions and maintaining of packages, I suggest looking at the glossary at the end to have a better grasp of the terms that are used throughout the post.
Point of linux distributions
First thing I'd like to point out is the point of the Linux distributions. What benefit do they provide? And why there are so many of them…
As it has been brought up many times by the rms1, Linux by itself is not enough, it's just the kernel that does the underlying work. We need more software to utilize the hardware. That's the gap that Linux distributions bridge by providing the Linux and much more other software that we need.
Each distribution is unique in its own way. Some prefer different ways of handling the software (like Gentoo that allows you to compile it yourself) and others stable releases of software (like Debian).
In the end it mostly boils down to the packaging. I, as a user, want to do something like
$ sudo dnf5 install firefox
and not bother about anything else. I don't want to open browser to look the thing up, download it and then click mindlessly 500× “Next”. I just want to run one command and when the maintainers decide it's time to move on, another one to upgrade the software to the newer version.
Of course, for some use cases you want to minimize the latter. And even make sure that it's safe to do it when you need to. You don't want to break your production deployment just because someone decided it's time to push something out.
That's when the maintainers come in. They take upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the packages. If you've ever used the Debian, you know very well how old the software is, but that's what you might need for your servers.
Pain of packaging
Packaging software is not cost-free. You may as well have 80 % of packages that don't need much care and it's rather easy to push them forward, but those remaining, which are complicated and raise issues regularly, will make it up and take a lot of time and also pain.
Libraries are the most common example that might not need much work to be done. On the other hand, Linux kernel itself is a rather complicated machinery that is patched a lot and its build process is not simple either.
Even if you consider just those easily-maintainble packages, the process can be tedious, boring and overall time consuming.
Packit can help tremendously with the easily-maintainable packages, since it can be automated.
Packaging whole ecosystems
Now it's time to talk about whole ecosystems that have some kind of a packaging by themselves. Yes, I mean Python (with its continuous stream of different package managers), Rust, Go, etc.
Whole point of packaging is to have some form of gating. In other words, you want some kind of quality control when pushing changes into the Linux distros.
If you want to package some tool (or even library) from the aforementioned ecosystems, you need to package all of the dependencies to make sure something doesn't get updated in the meantime (and also that you can safely reproduce the builds, if need be).
I've tried to package some utilities for EPEL both in Rust and Go. Dependencies
form a DAG2 and in case of Rust, it's very similar to the way
You get a lot of dependencies. And since it's a tree of dependencies, there may be a lot of them.
I have no clue how do the Rust maintainers operate, but I'm tipping my fedora in their direction, since it must be a pain in the ass.
You can find few Linux distributions that are “paid”. I'm very well aware of the fact I've used quotes around the word, cause it's not that easy and not even same for all of the distributions that involve some kind of a payment.
One of the first non-free distributions I've come into contact was Zorin OS which basically tries to be the best transition solution when moving away from the Windows or macOS. If you have a look at the perks of its Pro version that's paid, you may as well decide they are rather questionable…
It's time to move into the Ubuntu Pro, RHEL and SLE territory. What's the point of those? They definitely offer different kind of, let's say, non-free experience.
With those you are paying mainly for the support and bug/security patches.
There's no mention of any kind of support on the Zorin page… Apart from the fact that you are supporting the Zorin development.
As I have mentioned above, the three services3 I mentioned are providing support with regards to bugs and security vulnerabilites. Therefore it makes sense to have some kind of a process in place when you're pushing changes (either updates, patches or security patches) to the distribution. And yes, these processes are in place.
If you think about the amount of packages that is present in the community distributions like archLinux (14,830 packages) or Fedora (74,309 packages), it is safe to come to a conclusion that there's no way to support all of them.
It may seem that archLinux contains rather small set of packages, but one of the killer features of archLinux lies in the AUR (archLinux User Repository) where you can find additional 93,283 packages.
That's why the Linux distributions have some structure to their repositories that contain packages. The way you go around this is rather simple, you choose some set of critical packages that you guarantee support for (like Linux kernel, openSSL, etc.) and maintain those with all the QA processes in place.
This is also one of the reasons why I'm quite against packaging anything and everything into the Linux distribution. In my opinion it is impossible to properly maintain huge set of packages and enforce some kind of quality control.
Ubuntu has pretty granular structure of their repositories, namely:
maincontaining the “core” of the Ubuntu that is maintained by the Canonical,
universecontaining literally the “universe”, packages that everyone likes, but they're not crucial, this repo is maintained mostly by the community,
multiversecontaining packages with some license or copyright issues, and
restrictedcontaining proprietary packages like nvidia drivers and such.
By briefly checking my Ubuntu 23.10 installation, here are stats of packages in their respective repositories:
mainwith 6,128 packages,
universewith 63,380 packages,
multiversewith 997 packages, and finally
restrictedwith 784 packages.
As you can see, if we sum them up, they are relatively similar to the Fedora numbers.
CentOS on the other hand has a bit simpler structure with BaseOS for the base and AppStream for additional packages:
baseoswith 1,058 packages,
appstreamwith 5,646 packages, and
extras-commonwith 42 packages.
Overall they make up the similar number as the Ubuntu's
main repository. And
you can also notice that there are no additional repositories.
There's also a CRB (CodeReady Builder) repository with dev packages like headers and such.
And you can also enable EPEL (Extra Packages for Enterprise Linux) which is community-supported and provides another 19,903 packages.
Now it's time to get back to the Ubuntu Pro. There are multiple points that need to be taken in account to be either positive or negative about it…
We can start with the way Ubuntu is released and maintained. Ubuntu has regular 6-month release cycle and biannual LTS release. Releases are normally supported for 9 months with the exception of the LTS releases being supported for 5 years.
If you check out the Ubuntu Pro website, you can find the following statement:
The most comprehensive subscription for open-source software security
30-day trial for enterprises. Always free for personal use.
Ubuntu Pro for personal use consists of 5 installations and in case of the community ambassadors 50.
Overall if you try to find what is included in the Ubuntu Pro:
- high and critical patches,
- 10 years of maintenance, and
- (optional) 24/7 enterprise-grade support.
and try to look up to which repository the packages mentioned in the screenshot
belong, we will find out that they belong to
universe repository which is
maintained by the community. Not to mention nature of the packages: multimedia.
You may think about this as a scam, but considering repository consisting of 70k packages, it is not an easy task to do. And with LTS releases we're talking about 5+ years of support.
Try to compare this state to Fedora. It also has a 6-month release cycle, but there are no LTS releases and each release is supported only for a year.
Common strategy, at this point, is to pull out the open-source. Yes, we are still dealing with the open-source, but keep in mind that you're trying to patch some issue in a version that's 5 years old, upstream definitely doesn't care anymore4, the development didn't stop 5 years ago, it's going on and fixing this issue in a release from 5 years is not the same as fixing it in the current release. At this point, if you are paying for such support, you are actually paying for someone to do software archaeology which can be non-trivial to do.
In the case of Ubuntu Pro we're talking about community support and best-effort support by Canonical for the paying customers. And that makes sense to me, running LTS distro for 5+ years on a desktop seems like an odd choice, even with the help of podman and distrobox or toolbx that allow us to use stable or LTS distro as a base and containerized development environments on top of that.
RHEL ecosystem is much more complicated in this matter. However it's very similar to the way SUSE operates with few exceptions.
You can see a flow diagram here:
Key things to take and not to take from the flow diagram:
- getting from one upstream to its respective downstream is not as simple as the presence of an arrow and it's not the same process for all of them
- lengths of the arrows are not proportional, specifically:
- Fedora Rawhide is supposed to consume updates as soon as possible,
- depending on the decision of the maintainer they can, but don't have to be included in the currently supported Fedora releases (you can take Emacs as an example of such package), but Rawhide eventually becomes the next Fedora release,
- CentOS Stream gets branched off a specific Fedora release, and then
- ultimately CentOS Stream becomes the next minor release of RHEL.
- this diagram is simplified by a lot
I'll also include a SUSE flow, so you can compare:
You can notice, as opposed to the RHEL ecosystem, some changes are being backported to the openSUSE Leap.
However this is subject to change as there is a new ALP project arising which is, more than likely, going to replace the Leap.
Change in the model
The flow I've shown above is in effect since late ‘20 and early ‘21. I hope you can see that it is quite similar to the way SUSE operates too. Before late ‘20 the flow was following:
CentOS was the last distribution in that “chain”. This provides some benefits and some negatives.
Before the change
From the point of a developer, unless you have some kind of an early access to RHEL, you don't see the changes until they land and are already released. This impairs your ability to test and verify your software before shipping it to your clients that use RHEL.
From the point of a user, there is one positive, you basically get “free RHEL” without the support. This also allowed you to report bugs against the RHEL, since they were 1:1 distros (minus the branding and support). So you'd technically get RHEL free of charge.
Benefit of such project, except for the cost, is questionable. The main issue, which actually became even more apparent after changing the flow, is someone else repackaging your own product and selling it again.
After the change
First of all, the current flow counters the issue mentioned above. You can test your projects against the next minor RHEL release. CentOS Stream is free, so you can freely incorporate it into your CI pipelines.
Green tests may not be green everywhere and catching such issues as soon as possible costs much less than catching them further down the chain.
There are many people thinking that RHEL has become closed-source. It is not. The development happens out in the open, it's more open that it was before. However with the cost of not getting the exact same thing for free. You can get the next minor RHEL, not the same that's normally paid for. Packit is an example of a service that is deployed on the CentOS 9 Stream and even used to be deployed on Fedora, but the regular 6-month release cycle caused some minor issues here and there.
Production-ready is something that heavily depends on the context…
After this change so-called free “clones” emerged. I have to admit that in case of AlmaLinux I can see some benefits e.g., pushing for live images and support of various desktop environments, Raspberry Pi support or even WSL images being present in the M$ Store and easy to install.
Open-source and paid support
Overall I don't think that paying for the support of 5 years old non-critical packages is going against the open-source. It is a non-trivial work that, in majority of cases, cannot be included in the upstream, therefore the benefit is reapt only by the paying customers. I have to admit that in the case of the Ubuntu Pro it may seem a bit weird (hiding patches behind the paywall). However we're still talking about rather big set of packages that will affect a minority of server workloads, if any.
rolling release - continuously released without “significant milestones”tip
As an example of rolling distribution you can take archLinux, openSUSE Tumbleweed, Fedora Rawhide, or even CentOS 9 Stream.
As en example of not rolling distribution you can take Ubuntu, openSUSE Leap or Fedora.
bleeding edge - contains the latest versions as they are released on the upstreamtip
As an example you can take archLinux, openSUSE Tumbleweed or Fedora Rawhide. You can also notice how common it is to combine rolling release with bleeding edge.
upstream & downstream
You're most likely to meet these terms in the meaning of upstream being the project itself and downstream being the packaging of said project in some distribution.
However this can also apply to distributions like openSUSE Tumbleweed with openSUSE Leap, Fedora with CentOS Stream, or even CentOS Stream with RHEL. This basically means that the packages/software is being released into the upstream (Tumbleweed, Fedora, or even CentOS) and then after being tested is taken further down into their respective downstreams (Leap, CentOS, RHEL).
Richard Stallman ↩
directed acyclic graph ↩
Ubuntu Pro is technically a service whereas the RHEL and SLE are distros with the support included. ↩
There are upstream projects that keep LTS branches, such as Linux kernel, but even in the case of the kernel itself, they're planning on ending it, since the cost outweighs the benefits at this point. ↩