The Future of the CentOS Project

As the year came to an end, Red Hat stopped supporting CentOS, with this surprising decision provoking a furious reaction among many IT administrators.

The CentOS project (Community ENTerprise Operating System) is one of the most commonly used Linux distributions, which from the outset was developed as a community project. According to W3Techs data, the most popular Linux server operating system is Ubuntu, used by 48% of users. CentOS is in second position with 18.8%, while Debian comes in third with 17.5%.

CentOS is Leaving the Stage

As we know, CentOS is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) source packages, which are fourth in this classification. However, RHEL only has just under 2% of the market. The above data leaves us with no illusions – CentOS is a niche solution used by a small group of enthusiasts. It is a popular operating system with a good reputation in the IT world. It’s therefore unsurprising that Red Hat’s decision prompted a nervous reaction among administrators and the heads of IT department using the tool. The firm announced that it would continue to support CentOS 7 and develop it for the remaining RHEL 7 life cycle. This means that support for CentOS 7 will be available until 30th June 2024.

The situation is decidedly worse when it comes to CentOS 8. Red Hat only intends to update it until the end of 2021. Users of this version were expecting support right up until 2029. Red Hat also announced that the successor to CentOS would be CentOS Stream, which, in the opinion of specialists, is a poor alternative.

CentOS – a Little History

CentOS first appeared in 2004. Interestingly, the first version of the operating system was called number 2. This was no mistake, but related to the then existing RHEL 2.1. From that time, every new version premiere of RHEL was accompanied by the debut of an appropriate version of CentOS, based mainly on the same source.

Although CentOS was and still is a very popular Linux distribution, its reputation was damaged somewhat by the struggle between communities. In 2008, Lance Davis left the CentOS project, although he retained control over the domains and the finances. While it’s true that the CentOS team did make renewed contact with Davis a year later and regained control of the project, the image remained tarnished.

At the beginning of 2014, CentOS joined forces with Red Hat while remaining an independent distribution in relation to RHEL. At that time, this fusion seemed to be a sensible solution for both sides – the team of developers working on the CentOS project were not able to fully manage the distribution, which was rapidly increasing the market share. Red Hat took control of the firm, which had a positive influence on the reputation of the brand, while the developers benefitted from well-paid full-time positions. Although the transaction was presented as the founding of a new company, it was obvious that Red Hat pulled all the strings as it was financing and controlling the project.

(It tempting to see an analogy here with Fedora – a ‘community distribution’, which in fact belonged to Red Hat, with the only distinguishing feature being the name. It must be said objectively, however, that the firm is in general praised for the way it manages Fedora. Until not long ago the same was true for the support provided to the CentOS project. The marriage successfully lasted just under seven years, after which time it fell apart.)

Voices of Indignation… and Delight

Some people have asked themselves the question: Why is Red Hat taking one of the most powerful players out of the game? For years, CentOS was the obvious choice for experienced administrators. RHEL, meanwhile, is the natural choice for firms that expect strong support from their operating system provider. Independent administrators who bet on CentOS are not hiding their dismay, visible in the numerous posts on internet forums. Some say that Red Hat has betrayed users of the operating system. There are also those of the opinion that the community should turn away from Red Hat, take several thousand clients with them and continue with the project. Others say that CentOS Stream is no replacement for the operating system being withdrawn.

The uses that CentOS is put to are completely different from CentOS Stream. Many people use CentOS for corporate production purposes, not for programming. CentOS Stream may be a good solution for creating and testing applications, but it is highly unlikely that CentOS Stream will be of much use in production processes – explains an internet user on the Reddit portal.

Not everyone is critical of Red Hat’s move, however. Jim Perrin, a former Red Hat developer and a member of the CentOS board, thinks that the new approach to CentOS has three advantages:

  • RHEL development is more transparent and reliable,
  • it allows independent software providers and developers to share improvements and functions,
  • it allows the community to share their opinions.

CentOS Stream has provoked a lot of interest among Facebook and Twitter developers, who have formed a special interest group (SIG) to streamline work on implementing CentOS Stream in hyper-scalable infrastructure. This is a strange initiative, especially in the context of increasing criticism of the operating system. However, according to reports presented by the above firms and by cloud services suppliers, CentOS Stream has a wide scope of use in server farms. Various evangelisers claim that the world of technology that we have to deal with today isn’t as simple as it was several years ago. The number of SaaS users is growing exponentially, and the role of container applications and native services is also increasing. As a result, traditional operating systems cannot keep up with the tempo of changes, and the future belongs to solutions such as CentOS Stream.

A Realistic Alternative to CentOS

It is hard to believe that the arguments put forward by proponents of CentOS Stream are convincing for most IT administrators. So what is a realistic alternative to the operating system laid to rest by Red Hat?

Specialists point to several solutions that could be successful replacements for CentOS. The first one on the list is Debian, which ensures stable packages and a long support period. The Debian Long Term Support project (LTS) began in 2014 and aims to provide five-year security support for all stable releases. Another popular operating system that originated in the Linux family is Ubuntu. This software is highly effective in implementation of critical infrastructure. The current 20.04 Ubuntu LTS system will be supported until 2025, while extended Ubuntu 20.04 support is available until 2030. Meanwhile, a good choice for those who have become accustomed to RHEL could be Oracle Linux. The system is a free RHEL option with probably the greatest binary compatibility, and is currently available as a replacement for CentOS. It has been designed by Oracle with the needs of commercial cloud services in mind. One advantage of Oracle Linux is that it is compatible with the RHEL release cycle with a modified ‘Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel (UEK)’ from Oracle.

To finish with, it is worth mentioning two projects that are at a relatively early stage of development. Greg Kurzer, one of the co-creators of the CentOS project, has begun a new initiative called Rocky Linux. This is to be a continuation of the operating system that is leaving the stage, based on RHEL sources. Rocky Linux is not linked to any commercial entity nor to Linux distribution, and is based on a real community. It is worth noting the involvement of CloudLinux, a firm that provides a commercial version of Linux for implementing in the cloud. CloudLinux OS is in fact based on CentOS. The team therefore has vital experience, as well as the experts who can work on further development of CentOS.

Paweł Mączka Photo

text written by:

Pawel Maczka, CTO at Storware