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The State of Oracle Linux

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Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux is something of an odd-duck in Linux distribution circles. While Oracle, the database giant, produces it, under the Oracle paint job it’s all RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux). In addition, while Oracle stands behind its distribution with support, Oracle doesn’t think of itself as being in the Linux distribution business.

What does it all mean and why does Oracle have one foot in the Linux business? For the answers to these and other questions, Edward Screven, Oracle’s Chief Corporate Architect, recently spoke with Jim Zemlin, head of the Linux Foundation.

Before launching into this discussion, first you should keep in mind that Red Hat‘s RHEL is the foundation of several other business Linux distributions. These include Centos, Pie Box Linux, and White Box, which appears to be inactive. Where Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux differs from these distributions is that their creators make no bones about it: they’re Linux distributors building on Red Hat’s work.

Historically, Oracle is coming from an entirely different place. While Oracle was one of the first major software development companies to support Linux, they only started shipping their own Linux in October 2006 This move came after months of rumors that Oracle might either make their own Linux distribution or buy an existing one, Ubuntu was mentioned, lock, stock and barrel. No one expected Oracle simply to take RHEL and repackage it.

Here, according to Screven, is how Oracle got there. In the “mid to late 1990’s we realized that commodity computers-that is computers that are based on x86 architecture chips-were starting to get faster and more reliable and that we could use our database clustering technology to tie them together and solve significant database problems at a cost which was very appealing to customers.”

“But of course we still needed a kind of operating system,” continued Screven. “And, you know, if you looked around back then at what was available, I mean, basically it was Windows or not too much else commercially supported, and certainly nothing else was commercially successful. But there was Linux. And, you know, it was very early in Linux days, especially for trying to have a production deployment in a data center, but still we decided Linux was probably going to be very successful. And so we produced the first commercial database port [Oracle 8] to Linux in 1998.”

Unlike almost all companies then, and still some businesses today, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison wasn’t afraid of Linux and open-source software. Screven said, “I don’t think there was any risk aversion then. At Oracle we have the benefit of a CEO who has a very strong technical sense and a really excellent business intuition. And, you know, he was able to grasp the potential of Linux and he was able to understand the implications of the licensing model on business. And he realized easily that, in fact, there was no downside for us to support Linux.”

Oracle also doesn’t just sell Linux support and programs that run on Linux; they run their entire multibillion dollar company on it. “Oracle definitely runs on Linux. We have very few servers in our infrastructure that are not Linux; that support, you know, internal IT systems, very few. And even the ones that continue to exist are on a plan to be phased out. So we definitely run our business on Linux. In fact, I mean, our entire IT infrastructure is Linux, our entire development infrastructure as well. So, you know, our development platform is Oracle Enterprise Linux. Our test platform is Oracle Enterprise Linux,” said Screven.

Still, as Monica Kumar, Oracle’s senior director of product marketing for Linux and open source, told Robin “Roblimo” Miller in a NewsForge interview, Oracle doesn’t use Linux desktops because we still don’t believe it’s ready for prime-time.”

When asked directly why Oracle wasn’t in the distribution business, Screven explained, “We see ourselves as being in the Linux support business. I think there’s an important difference there. I mean, we don’t try to compete by creating a differentiated distribution. We don’t try to compel customers to subscribe by withholding binaries. You know, anyone on the planet can download and use Oracle Enterprise Linux binaries for free. You know, if you want support from us, you pay us. But we’re not trying to compete in the distribution business.”

This is somewhat misleading since no Linux distributions tires to gain business by restricting use of a necessary binary. In addition, all the major Linux commercial distributions-Novell’s SLES (SuSE Linux Enterprise Server), Red Hat’s RHEL, and Canonical’s Ubuntu-rely on support contracts, not sales, for their profits.

Screven went on, “Now, you might ask then, ‘Well why did you get into the Linux support business?’ Well, our goal is for Linux to be a practical and cost effective choice for our customers, and especially enterprise customers. The existing Linux vendors I think have a little bit different point of view and I don’t think that they were doing a very good job. You know, they were charging a lot of money for support levels that, in our minds, were insufficient for many enterprise customers. And the implication is that a lot of those customers were discouraged from using Linux for mission critical systems in their data centers. Now, we really want Linux to be the default choice for Oracle customers in their data centers. So we got into the business to fix it.”

To the best of our knowledge there has never been any study or report that stated that any Linux distributor has charged too much or delivered too little for their support plans. The real problem seems to have been that Oracle saw Red Hat, which had purchased JBoss in April 2006 as a potential rival.

Screven says Oracle decided to use RHEL though, not out of any desire to hurt Red Hat’s marketshare but because, “It’s really our desire to encourage the market to move to a single distribution. Red Hat has by far the largest market share in the data center, and especially for Oracle customers. So it made sense to pick Red Hat as our base. Now if the Red Hat and Novell numbers were reversed we would have picked SuSE.”

Then, in this interview, Screven goes on to explain how easy it is for RHEL users to migrate to the superior Oracle version of RHEL. Oracle’s Linux, however, hasn’t proven to be a chart-topper. Both Screven and Kumar said that only about 2,000 copies of Unbreakable Linux have been deployed. Red Hat has shipped hundreds of millions of dollars worth of RHEL subscriptions.

All that said, Screven doesn’t see Red Hat as the enemy. “Microsoft and Microsoft Windows,” are the real enemy. “You know, we, as a company, we have a few large primary competitors. One of them is Microsoft. So Microsoft wants customers to deploy Windows as a vehicle for locking them into Microsoft’s monopoly. Linux is an important counterbalance to Microsoft’s strategy. We view Linux as a much better open choice for enterprise customers running x86 computers. So we really want Linux to succeed in that space. You know, of course we fight with Red Hat over customers, we fight with SuSE over customers. We’re competing with each other in this Linux space. But the real opposition here is Microsoft.”