The future of Red Hat Enterprise Linux

What customers wanted: 2002

Gunnar Hellekson’s been with Red Hat long enough to remember what customers wanted in the early days, when they were still buying boxed software off the shelf of the local big box electronics store. What did they expect from the upstart software company back then? In Hellekson’s parlance, Red Hat’s business was “lighting up hardware and making software run.” Customers at that time primarily wanted:

  • Quality support
  • A vast* ecosystem
  • Peerless security response team
  • Options for life cycles (2 years, 10 years, etc.)
Firefox only has around 500 packages, and their dependency graph looks like this. Can you imagine what 10K might look like?

What’s happened since then?

The creation of separate streams for Red Hat® Enterprise Linux® and Fedora was a beneficial change that gave both room to grow. They continued to add value over time by, as Hellekson noted, “stuffing more things in the bag.” However, after a decade of adding value, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 has nearly 6,000 packages—plus all of their associated dependencies and complexity. According to Hellekson, if you were to package up everything in the upstream of RHEL today, there would be around 10,000 packages.

We’re gonna need a bigger bag.

The next 15 years

Hellekson went on to discuss the “emotionally satisfying” division of resources and labor often known as bimodal IT. This distinction, though not necessarily an accurate reflection of real systems, does describe how many organizations see 2 camps within their infrastructure and practices. The first camp (mode 1) is traditional: physical systems and manual processes. The other (mode 2) is more modern: early adopters of containers, DevOps, cloud, and other emerging technologies. Sometimes both approaches exist within the same department or even the same team.

Red Hat’s challenge is satisfying both sides—with the same code base.

The airing of grievances

In a particularly brave move, Hellekson detailed the “greatest hits” of complaints that Red Hat sees from customers and partners. Some are about the modernization that mode 2 requires, while others are concerns about disrupting the stability and predictability demanded by mode 1.

Hardware vendors Software vendors Customer challenges
  • Slow release cadence
  • Need for early hardware enablement
  • Hard to tell what’s certified and when/how
  • Cloud customers just don’t care about any of this
  • Not obvious when dependencies change
  • More packages to satisfy app needs
  • ISVs and customers stuck on minor releases
  • Difficult to manage subscriptions
  • Coordinating updates to OS and apps
  • Full installs harder to secure and maintain
  • Hard to understand what works with what.

What customers want: 2016

Today, Red Hat’s no longer the radical upstart open source entrant. We’re an established software company that sells known-safe software. Our customers trust the dependencies, libraries, and applications that are in our default install. And these customers still want the things they did in 2002: support, security, an ecosystem of apps and partners, and a predictable life cycle. Mode 1 customers are satisfied with those things alone.

But customers who stretching their IT further want more. Mode 2 requires:

  • Less disruptive updates
  • Greater automation
  • More available software
  • Less software installed

The first 2 things are pretty straightforward. Some systems can’t afford to go down, even to upgrade hardware. And automation and self-service are the backbone of today’s advanced dev environments. Tools that are coming into their own now like Chef, Puppet, Ansible, Cockpit, and even integrated management are a good start.

In 2002, the last 2 items might have seemed at odds–more but less. As Hellekson explained, customers want more choices but would like to see a base OS option that is far more lightweight and pared down. He also noted that many of the advancements made in recent years like the addition of Software Collections, the rise of the Atomic technologies, and the growth of containers are all approaches to minimizing the OS. What comes next will build on these existing works.


You can help

The evolution of Red Hat Enterprise Linux is continuous. We’ve been listening to the needs of customers, partners, and members of our communities along the way–now is no different. We have some questions about what you’re looking for from our products in the future. Use the QR code or go to to access the survey, share your thoughts, and help shape what comes next.

* Do note, “vast” in 2002 software ecosystem terms is decidedly less vast than today.

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