December 1, 2010

It May Be a CentOS Christmas


For the CentOS developers and users, Christmas Day may bring more than the usual presents under the tree.

If past experience holds, it should take the CentOS development and QA teams about 45 days from the release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 to get CentOS 6 ready for release... which puts the projected release date on December 25.

The holiday itself may influence this speculated date, since CentOS team members may be reluctant to work so close to Christmas, nor might they want to push out a major release when a significant portion of their enterprise user base will be taking time off around the end of the year. Still, a CentOS 6 release all done up in a red and green ribbon does have a certain appeal.

Currently, the CentOS team is conducting the first major part of every CentOS release cycle: seeking out and finding all trademarked and copyrighted elements of RHEL — what the CentOS team refers to as "the upstream release."

The careful language is deliberate: the terms "Red Hat" or "RHEL" are little used on the CentOS mailing lists or on the CentOS website, the result of a minor trademark scuffle with Red Hat and the CentOS Project in early 2005, when the commercial enterprise vendor lawyered up and went after CentOS for trademark infringement. Since that time, CentOS has been very careful to remove any such marks from the upstream source packages.

CentOS holds a unique place in the pantheon of enterprise Linux distros. A completely free-of-charge distro, CentOS is well-known for being a near-perfect copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, derived from all the free-licensed packages in RHEL. As such, CentOS has a strong appeal for customers who have neither the budget or the need for Red Hat's support-oriented pricing. Because of its provenance, CentOS is usually taken very seriously: software vendors and cloud providers alike have CentOS-ready versions of their offerings, and it is often mentioned in the same sentence with SUSE Linux and Ubuntu Server as a Red Hat alternative.

Nor are CentOS users required to fly without a support net. In late 2009, open source support provider OpenLogic announced it would be offering commercial support for the distro, which put any mumblings about lack of support to rest.

With the free price tag and the option to self-support or acquire third-party software, it's little wonder CentOS remains so popular. Of course, CentOS's strong community plays a big part in its popularity: CentOS developers bring a lot of talent and energy to the project, so much so that even Red Hat acknowledges their positive contributions.

"'From the technology side, CentOS broadens the customer base for Red Hat Enterprise Linux technology,' Nick Carr, a product marketing director for RHEL, told [in a 2007 interview]. 'They are active in the mailing list, and from an engineering viewpoint they certainly assist us in finding problems in the product.'"

So can the CentOS elves pull off a Christmas release?

That remains to be seen. Karanbir Singh, lead programmer for the CentOS project, recently expressed some frustration that after his initial Nov. 11 call to action, only a very small number of branding issues had been located and tagged within the CentOS bug site.

Singh was hoping that with a new buildsys and a repository structure in place, it would be a perfect time for contributors who might not be deep in CentOS skills to jump in and start the grand hunt for trademarked content, which are tagged as bugs in the CentOS environment. The hope may have been overly optimistic, as thus far little extra effort has been given to this aspect of the project, which may keep most of the progress in the hands of those Singh refers to as "the usual suspects."

Another obstacle faced by the CentOS team is the significant increase in packages in RHEL 6 — this has led to discussions about that repository restructure mentioned earlier. The simple fact is, given the sheer number of packages coming in from the upstream source, CentOS has to find a way to deliver itself on DVDs.

Despite these obstacles, we will be seeing another release of CentOS soon — because all this is nothing new for the CentOS team. Will it be Christmas Day? Only the man with the eight tiny reindeer knows for sure. Even if it isn't a Christmas release, CentOS 6 will be a great present for Linux users, no matter when they get it.

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