Send in the Clones: The Long Wait for CentOS 6

Forget Godot, we're waiting for CentOS 6. If you hoped to have a shiny new CentOS release under the Christmas tree, you were disappointed. 2010 slipped by, still no release. Hoping to surprise your honey with CentOS 6 on Valentine's Day? Maybe. If you're lucky.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 6 was released in November of last year, but where’s CentOS 6? Clone cousin Scientific Linux 6 is in beta now, but CentOS 6 is yet to be seen.

If it seems like an unusually long time to wait for a CentOS release to follow RHEL, it is. The last major release (RHEL 5.0) came out March 14, 2007. It was quickly followed by a release of CentOS on April 12. Scientific Linux 5.0 came out on May 7th — a bit slower, but Scientific isn’t just a rebuild of RHEL, it also includes extra applications and customizations.

Were things different with the 4.0 series? Scientific 4.0 was released on April 21, 2005. CentOS 4.0 was released on March 2, with a AMD 64 release following by a week. Again, not quite a month after RHEL 4 — which came out on February 15. (How considerate of Red Hat to wait until after Valentine’s Day…)

So there does seem to be some foot-dragging going on here. What gives? Something else that’s curious, a distinct lack of public alpha or beta releases coming from the CentOS camp. Scientific Linux is now on its first beta (pardon the hideous Web interface for their mail archive), but CentOS? Nada. During the 5.0 cycle, CentOS had at least one beta out before the public release of RHEL 5. This time around? No such luck.

The CentOS team took a different strategy with this round of releases — instead of releasing betas and trying to shadow Red Hat closely, they directed their community to the Red Hat beta process. That’s not a bad decision, necessarily. Since CentOS is repackaging RHEL there’s no good reason to duplicate testing. Bugs in upstream RHEL software ought to be reported to Red Hat, let Red Hat benefit from the additional testing community and do what its enterprise customers pay it to do (among other things): fix bugs and ship solid software.

When the topic of the long wait has come up on the centos-devel list, the developers have been a bit tetchy. Understandable, in part, because some of the queries have been less than diplomatic. I say “in part,” however, because CentOS could be a bit more inclusive in terms of soliciting outside help and testers. Reading the lists, it’s my impression it’s not necessarily easy to jump into CentOS contribution.

But many in the CentOS community also lack an understanding of what the developers do and why producing CentOS is any more difficult than simply rebuilding the Source RPMs (SRPMs) that Red Hat releases. So let’s take a look at what CentOS contributor R P Herrold lays out as necessary to produce CentOS. In short, it’s more work than meets the eye. Skimming the lists, it also looks like RHEL 6 is new territory in terms of setting up the build infrastructure and installer, which is also taking time.

5.6 or 6.0?

Another problem for CentOS is that the number of RHEL releases are growing. You see, on top of the shiny new 6.0 release, there’s a new RHEL 5.x release (5.6) that’s of interest to the folks who already have CentOS 5.x installed.

Given limited resources in terms of build machines, developers’ time, etc., which one do you push to finish? The CentOS folks are going with 5.6, with 6.0 to follow eventually after the ISOs are ready and the mirrors have had “a bit of a break.” That was the word as of January 14, and there doesn’t seem to be a final release plan in place as of yet.

You Pays Your Money…

For users like myself — those who want to keep their technical chops up to date, or use CentOS to test scenarios on a RHEL 6 clone, the wait is an annoyance but not fatal. Ditto admins who work for businesses that deploy CentOS rather than RHEL. Few businesses are going to be rolling out production deployments based on RHEL 6 already. If anything, RHEL 6 final simply started the process of planning to deploy the 6.x series for most businesses and you won’t see a lot of production use of RHEL 6.x until 6.1.

And ultimately, this one reason why organizations choose to pay the Red Hat subscription fees or choose a distribution like Debian or Ubuntu. If you need to depend on releases and security updates from an organization, you probably want to get it directly from the source. With an intermediary like the CentOS project, there’s going to be some delay involved. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. There’s no accountability from the CentOS project — it gets released when it gets released. Don’t like it? Tell it to someone who cares, or spend the time diving into the release process and help fix the problem, but customer service isn’t part of the job description for the CentOS developers.

You do get what you pay for. And if you pay nothing, there’s little cause to complain. CentOS 6 will be out, but when is anybody’s guess at this point.

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