Red Hat v. Oracle: Which is More Standards Compliant?

Oracle's trying for hardware lock-in, but they're leading in Linux app compatibility

Compliance, it seems, is the new meme.

Meme status was actually granted a few weeks ago when the meme fairies (they're real; look it up) bestowed the honorific to the open source compliance issue during LinuxCon. Which, let's not kid ourselves, was exactly what the Linux Foundation, organizers of LinuxCon and Open Compliance Program wanted.

But the without-a-doubt coronation of compliance as The Big Thing in open source land was when The Grey Lady herself covered compliance in this past Saturday's edition.

Clearly, licensing compliance has arrived.

Make no mistake, this is a good thing. The need to ensure license compliance and reduce the amount of licensing violations--intentional or otherwise--is real, and necessary. That faint note of cynicism you may be picking up on is directed not at the license compliance issue but rather on another kind of compliance: application development. Specifically, the Linux Standard Base (LSB).

For those not familiar with it, the LSB is a set of configuration standards for Linux distributions to use so that, no matter what distro for which you are developing an app, once you code to one LSB-compliant distro, you can code to all. LSB is often (and incorrectly) referred to as a standalone distro, but it is most definitely not: it's a specification of what LSB-compliant distros should use.

You may not have heard much about the LSB of late: version 4.0 was released with little fanfare in 2008. But the workgroup in the Linux Foundation is still quite active and the LSB is progressing, from what I can tell in the mailing lists, as usual.

When I wrote about Oracle's "new" Unbreakable kernel, I actually waited a bit to see if the Linux Foundation would say something about it, given the potential for a modified kernel such as this to damage application compatibility. It seemed unlikely, because the LF is a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization focused on the mutual benefit of its membership, and I kind of doubted Jim Zemlin, executive director of the LF, was going to lay the beat-down on Oracle.

But I think, in this case, the LF wasn't quiet about Oracle because of its charter; it was quiet, I believe, because as far as the LSB is concerned, there was really nothing to say. There is nothing about the Oracle kernel that is different enough to make it incompatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux-friendly applications.

In fact, Oracle's chief corporate architect Ed Screven went out of his way to point out that compatibility in his Oracle OpenWorld keynote: "We are not forking Linux. We are as compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux as before."

Despite my other misgivings about Oracle Linux, I believe that compatibility is true, for now, and the LF's silence on the matter is evidence of that. Another bit of (circumstantial) evidence: if incompatibilities did indeed exist, someone (likely a Red Hat employee) would have cried foul by now.

I don't think they will, because while doing some background on this story, I discovered something rather interesting: between Red Hat's RHEL 5 and Oracle Enterprise Linux Server 5.3, which distro do you think is the most up-to-date on LSB compliance? Take a look at the LSB Product Certification directory and you'll discover that Oracle Enterprise Linux is LSB 4.0 certified, while RHEL 5 is only LSB 3.1 certified.

Talk about awkward.

RHEL 5 was released in February 2007, while LSB 3.2 was still being put together for its January 2008 release. So Red Hat did put a little effort into getting compliant with the then-cutting edge LSB release. I might suspect that when RHEL 6 comes out, it will be compliant with LSB 4.0 (or whatever's available at that time). But I have some concerns: Red Hat hasn't gotten any of its RHEL-5 point releases updated to LSB 4.0 yet, even though it has had plenty of opportunity to do so.

While I have issues with Oracle's spin-doctor moves to lock more users into its hardware offerings, I think I will be a little hard-pressed to call Oracle Linux a complete knock-off of RHEL. In this instance, it seems clear that Oracle, which has not always been the best open-source player, has actually put in the extra effort to maintain current LSB certification.

That seems a little counter-intuitive, given Red Hat's message to consistently lead in the enterprise Linux space. Is Red Hat leading with standards or by going it alone?

Given that Oracle currently appears to be paying more attention to application compatibility than Red Hat, at least as far as the LSB is concerned, it might be something Red Hat would like to re-visit soon.

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