Cloud fight: Sifting through the Red Hat OpenStack support twitsnit

You have to love it when the fallout from a story is bigger, better and more exciting than the story itself.

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal, citing unspecified documents, reported that Red Hat(s rhat) would not support its own Linux customers’ use of non-Red Hat OpenStack. Since OpenStack is the foundation of Red Hat’s foray into cloud computing — which, let’s face it, is its growth path, I followed up on that story here. Red Hat supporters cried foul, saying that this was standard practice for many software companies — that no one vendor can support everyone else’s stuff. Others denied the contention altogether.

So let’s try to sort this out. First, from the Journal:

“In its quest to sell OpenStack, Red Hat has chosen not to provide support to its commercial Linux customers if they use rival versions of OpenStack, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The company’s support, which includes providing bug fixes and helping customers if they run into technical problems, is a key reason people use Red Hat rather than free versions of Linux.”

Then, Paul Cormier, president of Red Hat products and technologies wrote a blog post attempting to clarify the issue, though it didn’t clear up much. Cormier seemed to confirm that uncertified versions of OpenStack would be problematic, though, writing:

“Enterprise-class open source requires quality assurance. It requires standards. It requires security. OpenStack is no different. To cavalierly ‘compile and ship’ untested OpenStack offerings would be reckless. It would not deliver open source products that are ready for mission critical operations and we would never put our customers in that position or at risk.”

He also said users are “free to deploy Red Hat Enterprise Linux with any OpenStack offering, and there is no requirement to use our OpenStack technologies to get a Red Hat Enterprise Linux subscription.” But he did not explicitly say customers would be supported in their use of non-Red Hat OpenStack.

Standard support can exclude third-party products

It is true that many vendors — not just Red Hat — restrict the amount of support they will provide to third-party products used by their customers. As Red Hat’s support page (see chart below) indicates, in cases where uncertified third-party software or hardware is the suspected cause of a problem, Red Hat will try to resolve it but may require the customer to replicate the issue.

Or it will make “reasonable support efforts” and then refer the customer to a third-party vendor or support provider. As I pointed out, such support restrictions are not uncommon. Oracle has similar guidelines — though, to be fair, Oracle will often support out-of-policy third-party stuff if the customer is big and important enough.

So one lesson learned: Given the amount of angst stirred up, Red Hat’s policies specifically, and industry support strategies in general, leave a lot of room for interpretation. And where there is complexity, there will be confusion.

Not addressed is whether Red Hat is specifically instructing its sales and support team to warn RHEL users away from rival OpenStack, using support worries to support their case, but you’d be naive to think that’s not happening. All is fair in war and all that.

red hat support

Why all the hubbub then?

So, if limited support policy is common among tech vendors, why the big whoop?

Here’s why — from its inception, OpenStack was pushed as a community-led way to minimize vendor lock-in in the cloud. That’s why Rackspace,(s rax) which launched OpenStack (pardon the pun) with NASA, turned its management over to a foundation.

The bigger picture is that if vendors — Red Hat or HP (which appears to be the chief antagonist in this fracas) or Oracle or IBM — all launch a tightly integrated technology stack from operating system to hypervisor to cloud framework to whatever, it may be great for them. But it also raises eyebrows and blood pressure among IT buyers who really don’t want to be caught in the same vendor grip they were trying to escape in the client-server era.

Maybe some of us were too naive about this going in. As Gartner cloud analyst Lydia Leong pointed out more than a year ago, folks should evaluate open-source clouds just as they would any other vendor-led IT option. In other words, don’t expect OpenStack or Cloudstack to be a cure to vendor lock-in.

Still, the potential beauty of OpenStack is interoperability and replaceability. If you’re running one version and hate your vendor and its support, there’s an escape route that won’t break the bank. But that escape route gets more complicated when your present vendor joins OpenStack at the hip with the rest of its offerings.

Vendors who say this is not an issue are either blind or deaf or both.