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New service lets public browse kernel fixes

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In the latest episode in its ongoing pissing match with leading Linux vendor Red Hat, Oracle has set up a new service that allows Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) customers to more easily browse the source code of changes Red Hat has made to its version of the Linux kernel.

Called RedPatch, the new service is a Git repository that holds every patch Red Hat has applied to the kernel source, broken out as one code commit per patch.

Red Hat itself used to distribute its patches in a similar fashion, but in early 2011 it changed its policy. It now distributes all of its modifications for each new version of its kernel as a single, giant patch file, making it harder for RHEL users to identify specific changes.

"For most people who work in the kernel this is merely an inconvenience," wrote Oracle's Tim Hill in a blog post announcing RedPatch. But the change is particularly cumbersome for Oracle's Ksplice team, he said, which is why it created the new code repository.

Ksplice is a technology that allows Linux kernel patches to be applied to running servers with no downtime. To facilitate this, the Ksplice team needs to build binary update files from individual patches, one at a time, and many of Red Hat's patches aren't even particularly relevant. For example, as Hill wrote, a patch that makes a server boot faster isn't very important for a server that never reboots.

But although the unique requirements of the Ksplice development process explain why the Ksplice team wanted to develop and maintain RedPatch for internal use, Oracle may have other reasons for making it public.

Oracle and Red Hat have clashed repeatedly in the enterprise Linux market, with Red Hat supporters arguing that Oracle Linux is nothing more than a clone of RHEL designed to undercut Red Hat's business.

Oracle denies the charge, claiming that not only is its Unbreakable Linux Kernel superior to the RHEL kernel, but that a Linux support contract from Oracle offers a better value than one from Red Hat, whether a customer's servers are running Oracle Linux or RHEL.

Last year, Red Hat reps admitted to El Reg that Larry Ellison's aggressive attempts to poach RHEL customers were the main reason why Red Hat decided to start shipping its Linux kernel patches in one big batch.

"We made the change, quite honestly, because we are absolutely making a set of steps that make it more difficult for competitors that wish to provide support services on top of Red Hat Enterprise Linux," Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens said at the time.

But Red Hat's attempts to obfuscate its kernel code didn't slow down Oracle for long, and now with the public launch of RedPatch, RHEL customers can once again access kernel patches in an easy-to-browse format, free of charge – they just have to go to Oracle's servers to do it, rather than Red Hat's.

Expect to hear Larry Ellison's talking points about how much more open and transparent Oracle Linux is than RHEL, coming soon to a speaking engagement near you.

It seems unlikely that RedPatch alone will convince many Red Hat Linux customers to jump ship to Oracle, though. According to Wim Coekaerts, the database giant's Linux chief, most current Oracle Linux users are customers who had existing Oracle support contracts and who migrated their Linux support to Oracle mainly out of convenience.

But the public launch of RedPatch does seem to weaken the case for Red Hat's current patch delivery method. It remains to be seen whether the Linux vendor will rethink its approach, but as long as anyone can access RedPatch free of charge, the issue seems largely moot.

Red Hat has yet to issue a public statement regarding Oracle's new service, and it did not immediately respond to The Register's requests for comment. ®

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