Red Hat subs model gives pause

As Red Hat moves towards a subscription-based business model for its Linux distribution I am becoming more hesitant to recommend it. Debian and even non-Linux NIX clones like FreeBSD are looking increasingly attractive to me.

I’ve been using Red Hat Linux for a long time now, since version 4.2, in fact. Over the years, I’ve seen the fedora-ed distribution grow increasingly professional and polished, and always felt able to recommend it to anyone starting out with Linux for that reason.

As Red Hat moves towards a subscription-based business model for its Linux distribution, I am, however, becoming more hesitant to recommend it. Debian and even non-Linux NIX clones like FreeBSD are looking increasingly attractive to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being churlish here and I do understand that open source developers need to eat as well.

I am concerned, though, that the subscription requirement will hurt users and ultimately backfire on Red Hat.

In fact, I tell people to buy the boxed set of Red Hat Linux instead of downloading the ISO images over the internet — the professional edition of 9.0 seems to retail for just over $300 including GST, which isn’t a bad deal really (the personal edition can be had for around $60).

The money supports developers, gets you plenty of software for the money and two months’ worth of subscription to the Red Hat Network (one month with the personal edition), also known as RHN, for one system.

Considering the recent avalanche of security advisories affecting components used in Red Hat Linux and other open source, the RHN is a great idea. To update your system, just run the “up2date” script after you’ve registered the machine with the RHN. Up2date then checks for new software and automatically downloads and installs it. It works very smoothly, although at times the connection to the US servers can be slow.

However, once your complimentary one- or two-month subscription runs out, staying up to date becomes more difficult. Red Hat restricts access to its FTP servers so that users with active RHN subscriptions get priority over non-subscribers, meaning it can take a long time to pull down that crucial security update with up2date.

To get back on to the RHN priority track you have the option of subscribing to a basic account, for $US60 per system a year, which gives you “guaranteed access” to patches and the bandwidth to download them, or use the more crippled demo account service, which doesn’t. (There are also more expensive enterprise RHN accounts with different levels of support available.) The demo account requires you to participate in a survey every 60 days, which is fine, but you still get bumped down the queue when it comes to accessing the FTP servers.

More experienced users can of course manually update their systems via a mirror FTP server that has the updates, and then keep a local repository in case there is more than one system that needs refreshing. NRH-up2date is a neat tool for that purpose.

However, new users with expired subscriptions may leave their vulnerable systems connected to the internet without realising. This is a bad thing, and considering that Microsoft provides free access to Windows Update for the life of Windows XP, I think Red Hat should reconsider forcing subscription for quickly accessing security patches at least.

If Red Hat doesn’t, the old “Red Hack” joke will take on a more sinister meaning.

Saarinen is an Auckland IT consultant and IDG contributor. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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