What is a RHEL license fee worth to your business?

You pays your money - yes, really - and you takes your choice.
16 January 2024

“nota model red hat” by Mario A. P. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

  • What is RHEL and what is it costing your enterprise?
  • License fees provide support, advice and more.
  • Fees also fund development that benefits all end-users.

When deploying any in-house systems at scale, a key decision is whether or not to run ‘enterprise’ operating systems from well-known vendors or to go it alone and rely on in-house support. So what is RHEL and how does it differ from any other variant on enterprise-grade operating systems?

An ancillary question is whether or not a solution is being chosen because of the ‘trusted vendor’ issue. While there are multiple Red Hat clones, for example, heading over to Big Blue (owner of Red Hat), may be seen as the safest choice.

The main consideration, though, is usually whether or not the organization wants the support structures offered by the big Linux vendors like Canonical for Ubuntu support, SUSE, or Red Hat for RHEL instances. The ability to pick up the phone and call an expert third party for a fix or advice gives systems administrators a first line of defense against downtime, security issues, kernel bugs or other issues that might be affecting mission critical systems.

Image illustrating what is RHEL's license value for business article - a man in a red hard hat.

“Red hat, blue gloves” by CharlesFred is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The price of internal support

Any company that’s made a significant investment in its IT team will ask the questions: what are we paying all these people for, if not to solve problems? Why should we pay more for third-party expertise when we have experts in-house?

To some higher-level decision-makers, a highly-paid IT professional is the expert who should be used to solve problems, ensure security and uptime, and so on. However, what’s sometimes not realized is that IT pros specialize. A developer will possess a body of knowledge specific to their profession, which might not apply to the problem that core systems experience. Similarly, a network architect or cloud engineer may ‘work in IT’ but will be similarly unsuitable.

Even IT specialists who’ve moved through different career stages, including operating system-specific skills, may no longer have up-to-date knowledge. That’s why many companies opt for expertise from the horse’s mouth, or in this case, from the creators of the underlying operating systems that power the core of the enterprise.

There is a further reason why many opt for the big-name companies and their support agreements that come as part of the license fee. Security patches proactively preventing security holes or system downtime take research, testing, and application. By paying the operating system’s creator for end-user support, licensees contribute to the cost of that work, ensuring that all licensees are similarly protected.

What is RHEL’s ‘free’ status

All the big operating system creators offer some form of license designed specifically for development and testing teams inside end-user organizations. Red Hat, for example, allows a single license holder several license fee-free instances of RHEL. These can be deployed in non-critical environments where new software can be stress-tested or examined for performance and reliability. Both Canonical and SUSE offer variants on this agreement type, meaning companies can play with cross-platform migration methods or test for the viability of software on other bases.

While license fees may be expensive, the complexity of the typical modern IT stack means there are often thousands of variables. Faults can be difficult to trace without specialized knowledge, and the SLAs that come with vendor support mean that the shortest downtime and smallest attack surface are likely assured.

In-house expertise in operating systems is not a cheap investment. While the largest companies merit internal investment in such people and systems, the majority of organizations don’t have the capacity to employ these highly paid individuals. In those cases, an OS vendor, bound by SLAs at the end of a phone line, can play dividends in terms of continuity and safety of running services.

The source code for all enterprise server operating systems elements is (arguably) open-source, so some companies may be tempted to go it alone and save on the cost of licenses and support. Many misinterpret open-source software as ‘free’ in its monetary sense. But the ‘F’ in ‘FOSS’ (free and open-source software) refers to the freedom to redistribute and alter the code that’s available for download. When problems arise, engaging the right tool to fix the situation is critical, and the types of specialist help required aren’t – and shouldn’t ever be – free.