Chef users faced with a license change might find solace in a new open source distribution, Cinc.

Trap and Release

Difficult to Justify

By the way, the purported reason for the license changes, according to the manufacturer at that time, was to unify the license model of the software and offer the best possible support for customers who use Chef commercially. Progress Software also offered a questionable comparison: They claimed that, basically, the new business model is no different from the one that Red Hat and SUSE use for their distributions in the enterprise segment. Most of the software there is open source, too, but users have to pay for commercial use.

This comparison admittedly ignores the fact that users have had a binary-compatible distribution in the form of CentOS as an alternative to Red Hat since 2004 at the latest; this distribution was even maintained directly by Red Hat for many years. If you owned a Red Hat setup you could therefore switch to CentOS with relatively little overhead, and many admins have made extensive use of this option. How important CentOS is on the market was revealed when Red Hat decided to kill the distribution. Within a few hours, two projects were founded in the form of Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux to continue offering a fully RHEL-compatible distribution.

The situation is different for Chef administrators. They made a conscious decision to use the tool for automation a few years back and have since developed a complex tool set with this solution. The license change forcd them to make another decision: Either pay or use a different automation solution. Introducing a compliant solution would cost a great deal of money, as anyone with any expertise knows, but above all it would mean a massive workload – at a time when companies are already desperately looking for skilled personnel.

Trademarks and Other Blunt Weapons

To ensure that this pretty new licensing system is not endangered by interference from the sidelines, Chef also introduced a brand-new trademark hammer at the same time as the new licensing setup (Figure 2). Since then, only the Chef version that comes directly from Progress Software in the binary form can be referred to as Chef. The reasons given for this are as predictable as they are silly: Progress Software does not want to "dilute the brand" and it wants to "ensure that admins get the highest quality software when they install binaries that have Chef in their name."

Figure 2: To avoid the community doing something stupid – in Chef's opinion – the manufacturer also added a copyright hammer to its arsenal to back up the license club.

What this means in concrete terms is that distributors who compile Chef from the source code themselves (i.e., who build their own Chef distribution) are no longer to distribute the resulting packages under the Chef label. Additionally, third-party vendors must ensure that compiled Chef packages do not share paths on the filesystem with the official packages.

If you want to start your own Chef distribution on the basis of free source code, you have to change the path to, say, /opt/<Something>, because the official packages have already claimed /opt/chef. The vendor has gracefully allowed the Ruby modules from the official Chef packages to keep their names. However, if you want to switch from Chef to a different Chef distribution, you can look forward to a substantial amount of migration work, if only because of the different paths in the filesystem.

Decisive Action from Debian

With a short delay, distributors started to respond to the confusing path taken by Chef. At Debian GNU/Linux, for example, all of the Chef packages were thrown out of the distribution. A small side note in the release notes is all that remains of Chef in Debian. Anything else was hardly to be expected; after all, the Debian project has enough experience with stubborn vendors. The example of Iceweasel, the Firefox counterpart, remains unforgotten. It was maintained in Debian because Firefox wanted to prevent the browser being distributed under the trademarked name of Firefox (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The Chef license changes bring back memories of the Firefox web browser, which had to be renamed Iceweasel in Debian GNU/Linux for quite a while because of bickering over trademark rights.

The Debian maintainers apparently do not think that Chef is important enough to warrant providing a separate variant. Therefore, Debian users who used Chef with the distribution thus far have been left out since Debian GNU/Linux 11. You can expect other distributions to follow their example in the mid to long term. The combination of the new Chef license and the obvious implications of the trademark strategy leave them practically no choice.

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