Community vs. Commercial GNU/Linux Distributions

Monday Oct 20th 2008 by Bruce Byfield

So which is better: a community GNU/Linux distribution or a commercial one? Your choice depends on what you're prepared to tolerate.

You can categorize most GNU/Linux distributions as either community or commercial. Community-based distributions like Debian, Fedora, or CentOS are maintained largely by volunteers and donations of services or money, while commercial distributions like Suse, Red Hat, or Xandros are backed by a company and compete directly against proprietary operating systems such as Windows and OS X.

Whether you are an individual or a corporate representative, the differences between the two categories are worth thinking about, because your choice can effect how you interact with them, the way you can expect them to conduct themselves, and the philosophies you face.

Admittedly, the distinction is less firm than it once was. A decade ago, members of community distributions were purists who viewed commercial distributions as upstarts that stole from the community and corrupted its ideals with business interests. In turn, those involved in commercial distributions tended to view members of community ones as naive, and their software offerings as needing proprietary extras to be suitable for use, or at least some business sense.

Now, the two categories are harder to tell apart. Several companies are involved with both commercial and community distributions -- for instance, Novell is involved with both Suse Linux Enterprise and openSUSE, and Red Hat with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora. In these cases, the two distros are technically separate, but business interests may spill over into the community distribution from time to time. Not only does Red Hat employ several Fedora community leaders, but, in its security crisis a couple of months ago, Red Hat seems to have made decisions that affected Fedora without consulting its board.

Even more confusing, while Ubuntu seems technically a community distribution, its backing by Canonical gives it more funding than the average community distribution. And, while some firmer distinction between Ubuntu and Canonical might evolve in the near future as Canonical increases its efforts at profitability, that hasn't happened yet. For now, both Ubuntu and Canonical continue to take direction from their founder Mark Shuttleworth.

In general, community and commercial distros are less polarized than they once were. Yet, even in cases where the boundaries are blurred, the distinction often holds true. You just have to remember that not to be surprised by exceptions to the general differences.

Customer and user interaction

When commercial distributions launch, they are entering a market with well-established rules. Although they may challenge those rules by supporting a free software or open source philosophy, in other senses they have to conform to keep customers at ease.

One of the most obvious differences is accessibility to decision makers. Even in a giant community distribution like Debian, the project leader or the maintainer of a particular package is easily found on mailing lists or IRC channels, and any user can strike up a conversation with them. However, while the leaders of commercial distributions may be somewhat more accessible than their corporate peers, the larger the business, the harder it is for customers to engage them directly.

These days, for example, it is difficult to talk with any Red Hat employee outside of public relations or technical support without first obtaining the same sort of permission that you would need at Hewlett-Packard or Sun Microsystems -- and, even then, someone is likely to sit in on your exchange. The interaction is more formal and more restricted than in any community distribution.

However, the same formality makes approaching a commercial distribution much easier. Unless you are unusually obnoxious, the sole criteria for being heard by a commercial distribution is to be a customer or a potential customer.

By contrast, the programmer's ideal of a meritocracy still retains influence in a community distribution -- to say nothing of a lingering distrust here and there of anyone in business. While most community distributions have forums for new users, to really become accepted in them, you usually need to contribute in some way, regardless of whether you are a company or an individual. Making this kind of contribution can take time, and, if you are representing a business, community relations should probably be seen as a form of marketing. In effect, in a community distribution, you need to become part of the community. If initial contact is easier in a community distribution, long-term relationships are likely to require more maintenance.

Attitudes to the business at hand

Community distributions, by definition as well as the preferences of their members, are far more informal than commercial ones. If you are a programmer, you may welcome this informality as a comfortable and familiar environment; however, if it is new to you, it can quickly drive you to distraction.

For one thing, association with a community distribution is voluntary. In the absence of a paycheck for most members, all that keeps them involved is their own interest. Inevitably, this situation means that community distributions are more democratically organized. Leaders of community distros not only can't give orders the way that managers in a business can, but their authority lies largely in their diplomacy and arbitration skills.

In this situation, you cannot expect quick decisions. Instead, in a community distro like Debian, every point is discussed until everyone is exhausted, and the issue may be voted on by all members. Technically, a distribution like Fedora operates as a representative democracy, with community members electing a board, but these representatives usually know better than to make decisions without gauging the opinions of everyone else. In both these cases, obtaining at least a rough consensus is at least as important as taking decisive action.

The informal structure is also reflected in the forum-based support that community distributions offer. Such help is largely an offshoot of a member's involvement in the community, as well as another way to contribute and gain credit. In many cases, this help can be quicker and more detailed than the formal help that commercial distributions sell, but also harder to find, sometimes much ruder, and frequently continuing long after you have solved your problem as new people chime in with suggestions. To someone used to the commercial way of doing things, this support can be disconcerting, even though it is often just as effective as that offered by paid technicians.

Another unbusiness-like attitude of community distributions is their indifference to regular release schedules. This indifference is due partly to a preference for quality rather than punctuality, since credit for good work is the only return that many members will ever get for their volunteer effort.

However, it is also due to the fact that, given online repositories, regular releases are largely irrelevant, because the newest versions of applications are always available anyway. At most, a formally scheduled release is an excuse for extra testing and rethinking distribution policy. That is why Debian's deserved reputation for being slow with new releases does little to affect its popularity. But, in fact, many community distributions have lapses just as bad as Debian's; for example, the lapse between CentOS 4.6 and 4.7 was over three years.

True, community distributions associated with corporate interests have become more regular in their releases than they once were. Significantly, though, when faced with a loss of development time because of the Red Hat security crisis, Fedora responded by delaying its next release, preferring to do it properly, just like any other community distribution.

In comparison, like any software business, a commercial distribution needs new products -- which is what a new release largely is. Moreover, keeping to a schedule is a sign of reliability for customers (especially corporate ones), many of whom are still thinking in proprietary terms, and are unused to the constant upgrades that are the norm in GNU/Linux.

These are probably the reasons why Mark Shuttleworth sees a need to promise regular releases in his blog, and to float the idea of major distributions coordinating their releases with major applications like GNOME. What is largely irrelevant to community distributions is essential to corporate ones.

Guiding philosophies

Probably the largest difference between community and commercial distributions is the philosophies that motivate them. Sometimes, this difference is attributed to the difference between the activist free software and the developer-oriented open source philosophies. And it is true that distributions that contain only free-license software like GNewSense are usually community-based. However, you can find many gradients between the two poles of free software and open source in both types of distros, so this description seems lacking.

Instead, I would characterize members of a community distribution as seeing their involvement as a way of life. Whether they are free software advocates who wish to contribute to user freedom or open source advocates for whom their work methods are a way to improve software quality, members of a community distribution tend to see themselves as working for something larger than themselves.

Much the same attitude can be found in many rank and file members of commercial distributions, even those who are paid to work on them. These days, though, the leaders of commercial distributions are sounding as though they agree with Matthew Aslett, who, using "open source" to refer to free software as well, suggests that:

Open source is a business tactic, not a business model. Open source is not a market in and of itself, nor is it a vertical segment of the market. Open source is a software development and/or distribution model that is enabled by a licensing tactic. It enables new revenue generation strategies.
In other words, those leading commercial distributions do not see what they are doing as transformative, or a revolution in customer-business relations, the way that the signers of The Clue Train Manifesto did in 1999. Rather, it has become a way to save costs or get ahead of the competition. Otherwise, commercial distributions are simply engaging in business as usual.

The same cannot be said of the average members of community distributions. So as far as they are concerned with business at all (and many aren't), they see their efforts as a way to produce better software, or as a more human way of doing business. Above everything else, they see their attitudes and behavior as an alternative. And many of them are eager to promote it as one.

Whether you support or can accept these attitudes may have a larger role in your choice of distributions than anything else because, one way or the other, they will permeate most of your interactions with the distribution.

Going community or commercial

So which is better: a community distribution, or a commercial one?

The question has no simple answer. If you are used to traditional ways of dealing with software -- or have to answer to those who are -- then working with a commercial distribution is probably easier to handle. With paid support and regular releases, they will probably be a comfortable fit.

The disadvantage of commercial distributions is that you give up some of the advantage of switching to GNU/Linux in the first place. In fact, commercial distributions are counting on you doing so; since they can't make money selling what is available for free, they depend on selling services and intangibles like reliability.

With free support, community distributions might seem more economical. However, the need to nourish a good relationship and the atmosphere of a town meeting can cost you in extra effort, and require specialized staff if you represent a business. Just as important, the informal atmosphere may be strange and frustrating to you, and hard to explain to anyone to whom you report. Or, possibly, you may find the informality refreshing and engaging.

But whatever your decision, remember that all GNU/Linux distributions are not the same. Which of these alternatives you should choose depends very much on what you are prepared to tolerate.

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