Oracle Launches Unbreakable Linux Variant of RHEL
Published: October 31, 2006
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
If commercial Linux distributor Red Hat didn't like CentOS, which has created a variant of its Enterprise Linux software stack, then Red Hat must not like Oracle very much right now. Last week, to close out the OpenWorld customer event in San Francisco, the database, middleware, and application software vendor finished off its software stack when it announced Unbreakable Linux, a RHEL derivative with Oracle bug fixes and Oracle technical support.
As was widely reported back in April, when Oracle's chairman, Larry Ellison, was interviewed by the Financial Times, Oracle has been considering putting together its own Linux distribution. Of course, everyone picked up on that story, but few journalists and analysts at the time pointed out that Oracle had already created a Linux variant, called Miracle Linux, which is sold in Japan. So Oracle having a Linux distribution is not exactly news. But what is news is the way that Oracle is going about supporting Linux this time.
Rather than create its own Linux distribution, Oracle is instead grabbing the open source distributions of Enterprise Linux put out by Red Hat. Then, it is adding its own bug fixes, compiling binaries for the same X86 and X64 platforms that Red Hat is certified on, and distributing those binaries to customers for free. (It is important to note that the Power and Itanium platforms are not supported by Oracle's Unbreakable Linux at this time.) If you want to get additional support from Oracle, beyond free binaries and patches from the Oracle Unbreakable Linux Network, you pay for it. And if you want the top-end support that guarantees Linux kernel bug fixes are cascaded to past as well as current and future Linuxes, then you pay extra. But, Oracle's pricing is very aggressive--and so by design to undercut Red Hat on price while at the same time offering what Ellison claims is superior support coverage.
In his keynote address at OpenWorld on Wednesday, Ellison explained that when Oracle was working on its second generation of database clustering technologies back in 1998--the so-called Real Application Clusters extensions to the Oracle database, which is actually based on VAX and VMS technologies that Compaq licensed to Oracle because it needed the cash--it came to the conclusion that the future of operating systems would come down to two platforms: Windows and Linux. Windows is, of course, closed source and controlled by Microsoft, while Linux is an offshoot of Unix that adheres to many standards, is open source, is developed by an open community, and is available from multiple distributors. So, internally, Ellison said, Oracle backed Linux as the platform on which it would build its grid-enabled Oracle 8i RAC, 9i RAC, 10g database products. (Forget for a moment that Oracle's clustered databases run perfectly fine on Windows and Unix. Don't disturb the story line here.)
The problem was, according to Ellison, Linux needed help in terms of scalability, reliability, and bug fixes, and that is why Oracle initially invested in Red Hat, started Miracle Linux (now part of the Asianux distribution), and pumped money into VA Linux (which no longer sells Linux systems but which does own Slashdot. In 2002, Oracle even went so far as to establish its Unbreakable Linux program, whereby techies at Oracle, who work on behalf of the Linux community on the Linux kernel as their day jobs, are committed to five priority-one bugs and give the fixes back to Oracle's customers and to the Linux community at large. These bug fixes were available to any customers running Oracle software on Linux or to any customer that had a support contract with Red Hat or SUSE, which was eaten by Novell a year later.
Oracle's Unbreakable Linux distribution is a commercialization of this earlier and ongoing effort. It is not only a way to help cover the costs of a commitment that Oracle did for its own good as a way to beat Microsoft and its Windows stack in the data center, it is also a way to try to steal some money from Red Hat and to consolidate its control at customers that use its software. Now, you can buy an entire Oracle stack, from the operating system up through the applications. If you want one throat to choke--as enterprise customers are apparently telling companies like Oracle they do--then Ellison's is a good one to wrap your fingers around.
Of course, Ellison is too smart to admit that it is Oracle's desire for control that drove the announcement of the Unbreakable Linux distribution. No, Oracle is doing this as a means of fixing deficiencies in the way Linux is supported so Linux can be more widely adopted.
"There are still some issues today with Linux that are slowing the adoption of Oracle grids and of Linux in general," explained Ellison during his keynote address launching Unbreakable Linux. "And one of the things is what I am going to call the call the lack of enterprise support. What I mean by this is that if a Linux customer has a problem in the kernel, and the Linux vendor fixes the bug, quite often that bug is not fixed in the version of Linux that the customer is running. Instead, it is fixed in a future version of Linux that is about to come out. And that is not really acceptable to our large customers."
Ellison added that Linux support is expensive, and that intellectual property issues and indemnification against possible claims of intellectual property violations were also issues that were limiting the adoption of Linux in the data center.
Hence, the Unbreakable Linux distribution from Oracle. Ellison said that Oracle has built up Linux expertise in the past eight years, and has a team that is big enough to handle the bug fixes. Moreover, it has the code repository and network support capability from supporting its database, middleware, and application software, which it can leverage to support Linux. And rather than create its own distribution, it can simply nick Red Hat's stack, which has the Linux kernel and about 4,500 applications.
Here is how Unbeatable Linux works. Oracle takes the open source Red Hat code and sucks it into its own source code repositories. Then, it adds its own bug fixes to the code. Right now, Oracle is supporting Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 and 3, the current and the back releases of Red Hat's server code. Then, Oracle spins the binaries for these patched versions of RHEL, which you can get from the Oracle Web site for free. As Red Hat changes its RHEL software with updates and versions, Oracle resynchronizes each time and does regression testing so patches that that Oracle has made but which may not have yet been accepted by Red Hat are still included in the new Unbreakable Linux release; changes that Red Hat has made also make it in Unbreakable Linux, of course.
Unbreakable Linux service and support comes in a number of different variants. Network-based support (meaning, no human beings), which provides updates to the RHEL programs, costs $99 per system per year. The basic support offering (humans to talk with) adds Web or telephone tech support to this and adds patch support to the update support. Basic support costs $399 per year on a two-socket server, and $999 per year for a server with more than two sockets. If you want to get the backporting patch support, a lifetime support guarantee, and indemnification from intellectual property lawsuits, Oracle offers premier support, and charges $1,199 per server per year on a two-socket server and $1,999 per server per year for a machine with more than two sockets.
By Oracle's math, its basic support option for Unbreakable Linux is equivalent to RHEL 4 ES support, which costs $999; that puts the Oracle offering at 60 percent lower cost than Red Hat's support . And on a machine running RHEL 4 AS (which spans more than two sockets), Red Hat is charging $2,499, but the Oracle price at $999 is also 60 percent lower. Oracle maintains that its premier support for both two-socket and larger machines (which cost $1,199 and $1,999 per year), are products that Red Hat does not currently offer.
For the next 90 days, customers who have acquired any Oracle product can try Unbreakable Linux for free. If they already run Oracle products on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 or 4, it takes about a minute to get Oracle's hack of the Up2Date RPM manager and switch over from Red Hat Network to Unbreakable Linux Network. Anyone else can try Unbreakable Linux for half price for the next 90 days.
Of course, Red Hat has been a long-time partner of Oracle's, and the obvious question is whether or not this will hurt if not kill Red Hat. Oracle has much deeper pockets than Red Hat. Ellison was his typical dry, smart-alec when he answered that question. "We are really trying to speed up the adoption of Linux," he said. :"I don't really think that Red Hat is going to be killed. I expect that Red Hat is going to compete very, very aggressively. We have upped the bar for quality support, and I am sure that they are going to improve the quality of their support. We lowered prices, and perhaps they will respond by lowering prices. This is capitalism, and we're competing. We're offering a better product at a lower price."
Stay tuned for Red Hat's initial and then long-term responses.
Oracle's Ellison Ponders Owning a Linux Distro