Clubbing baby seals is GPL-compatible: Why Oracle can do better

More on Oracle: Why abiding by the GPL alone isn't enough

Earlier this week I wrote about Oracle's "new and improved" Linux kernel, and called the company on its strategy of cloning Red Hat Enterprise Linux while carrying almost none of the development burden. But is it fair to ask a company to do more than comply with the license?

A couple of commenters and folks on Twitter took issue with the blog, saying (essentially) "hey, Oracle is abiding by the terms of the license, how can you criticize them for doing what the license allows?" A few other folks suggested that Oracle was making a contribution, by helping to spread Linux. If so, shouldn't we all thank Oracle for its role in making Linux more popular in the enterprise?

In a word, no. I don't find either argument very compelling. The GNU General Public License (GPL) and other open source licenses dictate the things you're allowed to do with code. Simply because the GPL allows parasitic behavior, doesn't mean that Oracle can't be called out when it's not being a good community citizen. Some see the GPL's reciprocal requirements as restrictive — but even the requirements to give back changes and share code only go so far. Open source licenses leave a lot of room for companies to behave poorly while still complying with the license. Oracle could ship GPL'ed code on DVDs in wallets made out of the finest baby seal pelts housed in ivory boxes, and it wouldn't be against the GPL. But that doesn't mean the house that Larry built should get a pass if it chooses to do so.

Trying to poach Red Hat's customers by selling a rebranded RHEL doesn't rise to the level of clubbing baby seals, but Oracle could do much better by its customers and the larger community. Red Hat does more than just pull together the pieces to make RHEL, it employs a lot of the engineers that are doing the upstream work in the first place. By skating by on Red Hat's development, Oracle's taking money out of Red Hat's pocket that could go to development. Or trying to, anyway.

So far, Oracle's brand of Linux hasn't caught on too much with customers. According to this post by the 451 Group's Matthew Aslett, Oracle still struggles to sign up more than a small fraction of Red Hat's customers:

Ellison also noted that Oracle now has more than 5,000 customers for Oracle Linux. To put that in perspective, that is approximately 1.4% of Oracle’s 370,000 total customers. It is also less than half the number of new customers Red Hat adds every quarter.

One thing that's not noted there, though, is the size of the customer.

Either way, many companies prefer to do business directly with the company that's actually doing the innovation and leading the platform. Which goes to show that some companies do "get it" when it comes to Linux. Supporting the long term health of the ecosystem is just as important as making next quarter's numbers. Red Hat demonstrates that it gets this, Oracle does not. They'd rather raise prices on the customers they have locked in during a serious economic downturn than to build long-term loyalty.

Promotion as contribution

Speaking of the long term, some folks suggested that Oracle was a positive force because the company is spreading Linux.

Certainly Oracle did help boost Linux by shipping its products on the platform when Linux was still gaining a foothold in the enterprise. Certifying on Linux and porting its database and other platforms to Linux helped sell Linux into companies that might not have otherwise adopted Linux.

Now? We're several years down the road and there's not so much resistance to Linux at the enterprise level. Oracle isn't building its own distribution to persuade customers that they should take a gamble on Linux, Oracle is doing its clone of RHEL because it wants to capture as much of its customers' money as possible.

But motive aside, does Oracle's use of Linux do much to promote it? Oracle presents its offering as an alternative for customers unhappy with Red Hat's support offerings. That suggests that the customers in question would be using Linux no matter what, but they'd perhaps be using another vendor's Linux if they're not happy with Red Hat.

More than required

As far as I can tell, Oracle is living up to the requirements of the open source licenses that are included with RHEL. The company even sponsors some key kernel developers, who are mostly working on projects of direct interest to Oracle. That, however, doesn't mean that Oracle is meeting the expectations of the community that produces the software it ships.

Since Oracle gobbled up Sun, most of the projects that Sun sponsored have gone into silent mode. Oracle has laid off key people for many projects, including GNOME accessibility developers that were employed by Sun. The company refused to even do the courtesy of communicating with the OpenSolaris community before it snuffed the project. Again, all these things are allowed by open source licenses, but that doesn't make them right.

Oracle is legally entitled to do all of those things, but neither the company or its supporters should be shocked when it's criticized. The company has the resources to do better, it simply chooses not to.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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