Pst, Free Linux! Only $799!

- by Paul Murphy -

How free is Linux? If your application vendor only supports one of the Red Hat enterprise editions and this obligates you to pay at least $799 for your first year, is it still free?

More directly, under what circumstances is Linux at $1,295 free with your order for an IBM "OpenPower" eServer 9174-720E?

In theory, of course, the answer is that you're not licensing Linux; in fact you're not even getting an IBM operating system, you're getting a "1 year Standard Subscription and Support license", from Red Hat which you're then entitled to install on that IBM machine.

Similarly, the theory says you're free to buy that IBM box without an OS and roll your own Linux for it. In practice, of course, there are a few impediments - ranging from high skill requirements to foregoing application certification and accepting the performance hit that comes from the incompatibilities between the Power5 and other PowerPC derivititives like the G5. In other words, you can do this, but a business would need hundreds of copies to break even and you'd better plan on being long gone before the next round of hardware and software upgrades comes along.

Now you might think that someone who needs a number of these machines could buy a support contract for the one used as a pre-production test bed and just roll out unsupported copies to all the others, but IBM has a helpfull little footnote on it's pricing page for 720 Linux that puts the kibosh on that idea:

The Red Hat license agreement defines the RHEL AS 3 charge unit as per install, meaning that a license is required for each server or LPAR on which RHEL AS 3 is installed.

In my opinion, therefore, the impracticalities combine with the licensing requirement to render both the ability to roll your own and the traditional right to install multiple copies from the same CD every bit as fictional as Red Hat's claim that they sell support with a free license instead of a license with free support. It's easy to understand how and why Red Hat's reality reversal circumvents the GPL and related open source licenses they work under; but why are so many people willing to go along?

Of course it's not just Red Hat, it's IBM too. It's an IBM machine, but there's no IBM Linux distribution to go with it. Here's how one of IBM's key project managers for the official IBM System 390 Linux port, Karl-Heinz Strassemeyer, justified that in an interview with Ole Tange almost a year before SCOsource asked a court to lift IBM's AT&T licenses for AIX.

Most recently we wanted to make good use of Linux, because we wanted to ship some hardware where we said we would put a little operating system kernel into the hardware. This should enable us to do the initial program load specifically of Linux on top it of the small kernel. Flexible from different targets - CD-ROM, network or whatever. The first idea to take Linux was abendend. We didn't want to do a distribution, because we didn't want a patent infringement being detected. If somebody would have taken us to court we might have had to stop shipping our product.

In other words, IBM wants you to license Linux from a third party because IBM doesn't want to be sued for patent infringement.

Poke at this a bit more, and it gets worse. For example, I don't buy from companies that don't stand behind their products but I'm not sure whether IBM stands behind this one or not. Clearly they don't, in the sense that they want to limit their own legal exposure by having you deal with Red Hat, but ask them to help you get the thing working and you'll find them happy to help -although their work won't be covered under your Red Hat support contract.

You might reasonably ask, therefore, what that contract is worth if it doesn't cover the help you need? At best I think it's possible to argue that the first contract you buy of this type gives your people a form of privileged access to information. If, however, you buy five machines, and therefore find yourself forced to pick up the support "option" five times, how do you justify the value of the other four? After all, if we're pretending the money doesn't buy a Linux license, why give Red Hat another $5,180 for rights we already have?

In my opinion this whole pricing structure is a con and every time somebody buys into it the entire open source movement is weakened just a little bit more. Let it go on long enough, and the whole idea of free software could be looted into oblivion.

To help stop it, simply refuse to play. Just say "no" to vendors who require you to pay for Linux support in lieu of a Linux license. Make it a company policy: vendors either back a genuinely free Linux distribution like Debian, Gentoo, or Fedora, or they don't do business with you --and if that means passing up a bargain like that IBM 720E, well think of it as a Trojan horse and remember what happened to Troy.

Remember too, that there are always other choices. It's true that at $23,549 (plus $1,295 for Linux) a dual processor (4 core) 8GB system from IBM looks like a bargain, but you could cough up the extra $4,750 or so it takes to get the equivelent pSeries 550 with AIX or shave a few bucks off the top and get a Sun 440 with Solaris 10 pre-installed, a range of genuinely optional support options, and no moral dilemmas or legal gotchas hiding in the relationships you get into when you buy the thing.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.