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Haven’t switched from CentOS 8 yet? Here are your options

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Joao Correia

Contributor

Joao Correia has a long background in IT system administration, where he learned the intricacies of keeping enterprise stakeholders happy and systems protected.

Nobody likes it when Big Tech changes its mind. It’s particularly frustrating when it involves a major course change on something so essential to technology infrastructure as a server operating system. But that’s exactly what happened in 2020 when Red Hat stopped supporting CentOS as a stable release.

It’s a sudden change, and, in theory, you can respond rapidly and switch to a new OS, but the practical realities of large-scale server environments complicate matters. Sometimes, the best alternative isn’t that obvious either, which means you need time to make a decision.

Red Hat left CentOS users in a difficult position when it said it wouldn’t support the stable release beyond December 2021. The challenge of choosing the right alternative means many CentOS users are faced with using an unsupported OS. With just a month to go, time is running out.

Wait, what happened with CentOS?

Here’s a quick recap: CentOS is a really popular free-to-use clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), sponsored and maintained by Red Hat. It’s more than just a clone — it’s a 1:1 binary compatible clone, and that matters because it ensures application compatibility.

RHEL is an enterprise-grade Linux-based OS that’s built for the toughest workloads, but it isn’t cheap. CentOS is such a close clone of RHEL, many organizations chose to rely on CentOS for their enterprise applications instead of RHEL because it saves thousands of dollars in licensing fees.

Besides, Red Hat promised that it would continue to support each CentOS release for about a decade. However, the company changed its mind and suddenly cut support for the latest CentOS release (version 8) with end-of-life now set to be in December 2021. In the same breath, the company also said there will be no future CentOS stable releases.

This sudden change of heart meant that CentOS 8 users had to respond quickly, but given the complexity of changing operating systems and the varying choices, many haven’t yet.

You need to act now

In some ways, using an “unsupported OS” doesn’t sound that serious. What could really happen if you wait a year or two? After all, CentOS 8 will still work just fine in January in 2022 … and probably in January 2025, too.

The problem is twofold. First, there are very real security risks. When a vendor drops official support for an OS, it also stops releasing patches for new vulnerabilities. After December 2021, CentOS 8 workloads are vulnerable to exploits, which has the potential to be catastrophic.

Next, at the enterprise level, compliance is almost always a concern. One of the key compliance requirements large organizations face is around IT security, with mandates the use of supported — i.e., patched — software. Come January 2022, many CentOS 8 users will be in breach of compliance regulations.

So if you chose to do nothing about CentOS 8, you’ll end up with a server workload that’s at risk of cyberattacks and you’ll also be exposing yourself to heavy fines — potentially losing the ability to do business altogether.

OK, so I can just switch, right?

Yes, you can, and switching could involve as little as running a script. There are a couple of new players to choose from as well as established alternatives.

First, let’s deal with CentOS Stream. CentOS isn’t dead entirely, because it lives on as CentOS Stream, but it is not the alternative you might think it is, and it’s certainly not the replacement for CentOS that Red Hat says it is.

CentOS Stream is a rolling release without a stable release equivalent. Enterprise workloads simply cannot depend on an OS that constantly changes without the ability to stop that change, because nobody knows what might break when the code is updated. So while CentOS Stream is perhaps workable in a test environment, it most certainly won’t fit into server environments.

How about CentOS 7? As a slight quirk in Red Hat’s handling of CentOS, release 7 is still supported until June 30, 2024. So what about downgrading to CentOS 7 to gain extra support years? It’s a possibility, depending on your workload, but there’s no straightforward route — and it can involve as much work as switching to an alternative. Besides, in 2024, you’ll just go through the same process again.

Alternatives you should consider

The good news is that given the incredible popularity of CentOS, the open source community quickly jumped in, and two viable CentOS replacements emerged: AlmaLinux and RockyLinux.

Both are free, open source alternatives promising 1:1 binary compatibility with CentOS 8, so they’re pretty much drop-in replacements. Switch and you’re ready to go. The teams behind these projects acted rapidly and released production versions, and in both cases it’s demonstrably easy to migrate to either OS.

AlmaLinux, which also includes RHEL UBI-like containers, has the advantage of being an independent 501(c)(6) nonprofit foundation. RockyLinux is backed and fully controlled by the person who started it all — an original founder of the CentOS project, Gregory Kurtzer.

Established alternatives

Both AlmaLinux and RockyLinux are worth considering as switching is hassle-free and requires limited testing. But it’s understandable that you might want to look toward more established players.

Oracle Linux is a free-to-use 1:1 binary clone of RHEL. Switching from CentOS 8 to Oracle Linux 8 is a breeze, but given that Oracle is a commercial enterprise, you might wonder if Oracle could change its mind about the support and availability of Oracle Linux.

Which leaves two other options: Ubuntu and OpenSUSE. Both are established, widely used distributions with a strong support track record. However, switching from CentOS to Ubuntu or OpenSUSE isn’t straightforward and will require planning and testing.

In fact, your CentOS workload may not work at all and require significant adjustment and development work. For example, Ubuntu and CentOS use different package managers, so you’ll have to reconfigure how you deploy and update packages if you switch to Ubuntu.

Consider extending support to buy you time

Given the pressing need for ongoing support for CentOS 8, you won’t be surprised to hear that third parties are filling the gap.

Enterprise-grade support for CentOS is certainly out there. In fact, some CentOS extended lifecycle support products are already available, and they offer support and security patches beyond the announced end-of-life date, giving you more time to find the right alternative.

Extended support is a great way to keep your workloads safe from vulnerabilities and it keeps you compliant, too. You can easily buy a couple of years to sort out your migration strategy.

CentOS as we know it is dead — but you have options

It’s almost the end of 2021, so if you haven’t switched from CentOS 8 yet, frankly, it’s now time to.

There may be a bigger lesson in here: Vendors can be fickle and their agendas can change. You can’t really blame a profit-centered organization for focusing on its objectives, but a shift in objectives can have significant implications for some users.

So it’s worth keeping your eye on the horizon and being able to respond rapidly.

Disclaimer: TuxCare is a part of CloudLinux. CloudLinux is one of the many sponsors of The AlmaLinux OS Foundation, an independent 501(c)(6) nonprofit.

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