CentOS 8 End of Life and what to do about it

It’s July 2021 and there are just 5 months to go until CentOS 8 goes End of Life (31 December 2021).

Ordinarily our blog posts on software going End of Life are pretty cut and dry. This time drastic changes to CentOS’ future direction has complicated what would otherwise be a simple set of decisions.

In this post we’ll cover a few things. Firstly, we’ll recap a little of how this situation arose. Then we’ll take a look at what the changes are and why they might not be quite so bad. Then we’ll dive into your options for dealing with these huge changes…

  1. A brief recap.
  2. What do I do now CentOS 8 support is ending.
  3. Switching to RHEL.
  4. Switching from CentOS 8 to CentOS Stream.
  5. Can I downgrade to CentOS 7 from CentOS 8 to avoid CentOS 8 End of Life?
  6. Alternatives to CentOS 8 and Centos Stream.
    1. AlmaLinux.
    2. Oracle Linux.
    3. RockyLinux.
    4. Other options.
  7. WHM, cPanel and Plesk.

CentOS 8 End of Life – a brief recap

Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial digital rock, the opening sentence of this post won’t come as a surprise. You’ll also know of the ongoing saga concerning Red Hat bringing CentOS 8 End of Life forward 8(!) years. For those that have been under that rock, here’s what you missed in as few sentences as possible:

  • CentOS is the community-driven free (as in beer) downstream binary compatible repackaging of the (paid for) Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) distribution provided by Reb Hat Inc.
  • CentOS actually ‘joined’ (read ‘was acquired by’) Red Hat back in 2014 which gave Red Hat ‘power/ownership’ over the distribution.
  • IBM acquired Red Hat for $34B in July 2019, now giving it power over the CentOS project too.
  • Sept 2019 CentOS 8 is released with an End of Life date of 31 May 2029 and people are encouraged to switch over from the previous CentOS 7 release.
  • Dec 2020, just 15 months into the CentOS 8 distribution life cycle, Red Hat announces that CentOS 8 will no longer exist and will instead become CentOS Stream. CentOS 8 will receive no updates/support after 31st December 2021, cutting it’s original End of Life date by 8 years! CentOS Stream will also move to being an upstream development branch of RHEL instead of a downstream stable distribution, a complete change from the position CentOS 8 held.

It’s fair to say many people weren’t too happy with this. And who can blame them? Such a violent shift in focus for the distribution would have been enough to cause major ripples throughout the SysAdmin world on its own. Add to that the huge change of CentOS 8’s End of Life date and you really get the perfect storm of Linux Distro drama.

Was it really that bad?

Sort of. No. Yes. Maybe. Whilst this may become a historic text-book example of how not to communicate a product change, the reality is that the move to CentOS Stream is a culmination of years of work changing the way RHEL is delivered. Red Hat has now embraced a Continuous Integration delivery model – branded by Red Hat as ‘Always Ready RHEL’.

CentOS Stream is a natural extension of that work. It’s also a clear ‘bottom line’ lead business decision to reduce the brand and dollar cost CentOS put on RHEL. CentOS Stream will occupy a valuable slot in the RHEL development lifecycle. Rather than be a downstream burden, CentOS Stream will now lead development for the paid distribution.

There is a harsh reality though – CentOS Stream will be less stable than before. But in being slightly less stable it can address some valid complaints. Namely, it can now deliver feature updates faster than before and it will allow community members a chance to affect the downstream product (in this case RHEL).

It’s even possible that CentOS Stream could be far more ‘stable’ in terms of bugs or feature changes (not just version number changes) than other distros. That’s thanks to the move towards testing, CI and rigorous Quality Control under the ‘Always Ready RHEL’ development model. Only time will tell.

None of that matters though when the feelings of those invested in the project have been clouded by poor communication and perceived breach of trust these changes have caused.

What do I do now CentOS 8 support is ending?

Broadly, your choices are split into 4 categories:

  1. Switch over to the paid RHEL distribution
  2. Stay on CentOS 8 and switch over to CentOS Stream
  3. Roll back/rebuild on the CentOS 7 release, which enjoys support out until June 2024
  4. Switch to another distribution

When assessing your options, consider why you’re using CentOS 8 in the first place. There are good reasons to be using this distro. Knowing exactly what your reasons are will help inform your decision as to what steps you take next.

We’ll briefly look at options 1-3 but focus our attention mostly on 4. This is where there has been the most rapid development and your choices can evolve quickly.

What about cPanel?

We’ll cover that too. Jump forward to the cPanel section if that’s your main use case for CentOS.

Switching to RHEL

Lets start with the elephant in the room – the big drawback to switching to RHEL is cost. Pricing is varied depending on your use case but, as an example, a single server that comes with Red Hat’s famed support starts at $799 for a one year subscription.

A single server license without support will set you back $349 for a one year license.

It would be silly to focus solely on price though. Red Hat offer a huge range of discounts for licensing depending on your use case. Recent offerings, following the change of direction for CentOS, even cut the cost out completely if you’re under a certain size (though there are other caveats to this too).

Cloud providers like Azure, AWS and GCP also offer competitive on-demand pricing that takes care of managing licenses for you.

Another often missed aspect is Red Hat employees are amongst the most active contributors to many core Linux software, including the Kernel itself. Red Hat literally pays it’s people to fix issues in Linux itself, and a huge range of other open-source software. You get access to that kind of expertise, influence and speed of action when you take up their support offerings.

RHEL also has a huge focus on security with tools like SE Linux (love and hate it in equal measure!). Those who need to meet compliance requirements can enjoy automated tools and dedicated help and advice on where they need to make changes.

In short, RHEL is absolutely top of the pile. If you can afford the price!

Switching from CentOS 8 to CentOS Stream

What happens if you just do nothing and stay on CentOS 8? Will it automatically switch to CentOS stream?

In a word, no.

Thankfully, the process to switch is simple and officially endorsed by the CentOS team.

That’s not to say you won’t run into trouble but for the most part the process is simple.

The deeper question is should you switch to CentOS Stream? With the switch to being an Upstream development branch of RHEL, and a semi-Rolling Release at that, the move away from ‘stability’ may make this distro a non-starter for you.

Some have made the counter-argument; if your use case is so brittle that it is unable to handle even minor point version changes to an operating system, then it’s you who is doing something wrong. But the reality is there are situations when stability really is key. In those cases CentOS Stream may not a viable option for some.

If you are struggling with this decision then get in touch and we’d be happy to help you through the process.

Can I downgrade to CentOS 7 from CentOS 8 to avoid CentOS 8 End of Life?

If by downgrade you mean simply change some settings and migrate back down a release, then no.

If you want to switch back to CentOS 7 then you’ll need to perform a full reinstall of CentOS 7 on new physical/virtual hardware. Then migrate data over from your CentOS 8 servers. Not fun!

There may be good reason to do this, particularly if you were happy on CentOS 7 previously. CentOS 7 also retains it’s original End of Life date of 30th June 2024, so by switching back you can eek out as much time on a CentOS distribution as possible.

Likewise, some software is validated only against certain distributions and even certain releases. If you find yourself in that situation then migrating back to CentOS 7 could certainly be a valid option. It could also be a way give you more time to migrate your applications/assess your options.

Before doing so, we’d advise a very careful assessment of the costs and benefits of doing this. Jumping back to CentOS 7 might be the pragmatic choice but it may be worth putting your resources towards a longer term solution. That solution could be migrating to one of the CentOS replacements or maybe to a different distribution altogether.

Alternatives to CentOS 8 and CentOS Stream

Here we come to the core of the discussion but one where the answers are evolving very rapidly.

If you’ve decided that:

  • RHEL isn’t for you
  • you don’t want to move to CentOS Stream
  • downgrading to CentOS 7 seems a waste of time/resources
  • you still want a downstream distribution that is binary compatible with RHEL (just like CentOS 8)

…then what are your choices?

We’ll now focus on the ‘big three’ options shaping up to be viable candidates to replace CentOS. Then we’ll consider switching to a different distro altogether. Finally, we’ll mention a few other options that might be worth evaluating.

AlmaLinux

It was a tough choice to decide which of the alternative CentOS distributions to mention first. We could claim we’re going in alphabetical order, but the truth is AlmaLinux is shaping up to be the strongest option for replacing CentOS 8.

The project is backed by CloudLinux but will be ‘owned’ by an entirely separate and community led organisation called The Alma Linux Foundation.

What makes this such an attractive alternative is the cold hard cash backing the project. CloudLinux have committed $1 million a year until 2029 to support the project. They already have a decade long track record of supporting a downstream binary compatible RHEL clone, so they enter the field with a proven level of trust.

Importantly for many businesses AlmaLinux also has the option to receive paid support, provided by CloudLinux themselves.

Add to that the recent cPanel announcement of support for AlmaLinux in it’s current release version and AlmaLinux offers a comprehensive replacement for CentOS 8.

But the successes don’t stop there – secure boot shipped in the latest AlmaLinux 8.4 release and official images for the major cloud providers are now available.

If this sounds like the solution for you, there’s a simple migration script, as well as a stable release boasting binary compatibility with RHEL 8.4.

Oracle Linux

If we were being truly objective, Oracle Linux was already a viable candidate to replace CentOS and should have been first mention. But it’s Oracle, and even they have to address their own reputation in their own Oracle Linux FAQ.

Yes, Oracle Linux is free. It comes without any deliberate attempts to hold back features. And it offers an enterprise grade distro backed by the option for paid support. But it’s Oracle, so, you know…

To return to trying to be fair; Oracle Linux has a proven track record of bringing updates to their release faster than CentOS did. It also has paid options for cool technology like live kernel patching.

Switching is simple and reliable and you aren’t forced to pay for a support subscription. This is absolutely a 100% free, open source and feature rich CentOS replacement.

You’ll just have to decide for yourselves if you really want to get into bed with Oracle 🙂

RockyLinux

RockyLinux comes with one huge bonus – it’s founded by CentOS founder Gregory Kurtzer. Who better to lead the development of a CentOS replacement than the original founder himself?

RockyLinux has a slightly different approach to AlmaLinux, remaining fiercely free of any single external entity’s control/influence. It also has a broad range of supporters/sponsors contributing to the financial health of the project.

Recently the team released it’s first Rocky Linux Stable Release and has made available it’s first cloud offering, on GCP.

This is definitely one potential alternative worth assessing for your CentOS 8 replacement needs.

Other options

Ubuntu

If you know you’ll be replacing CentOS then it’s worth considering whether you want to stay on a distribution of the same derivative or switch to something else entirely.

One of the most popular and well supported options is an Ubuntu LTS variant. Ubuntu is based on the Debian branch of the Linux Family Tree. It enjoys huge developer, application and server provider support. Ubuntu also has massive ‘mindshare’ and deep penetration into the ‘consumer’ Linux market. This means it has a huge community, a well deserved level of trust and is familiar to most Linux users.

Ubuntu LTS releases deliver 5 years of updates free of charge, with extended support options available as paid extras. It is backed by Canonical who offer a range of support and services should you have Enterprise level needs.

Ubuntu’s popularity meant it was the first non-RHEL based distro to receive full cPanel support after CentOS announced it’s change of direction. Unfortunately, it’s still going to be some time until you can run cPanel on an Ubuntu server. We’ll discuss in the cPanel section below.

Debian

Debian is the grandfather of the Linux world. It’s been around forever and it’ll be around forever. Our recommendation above, Ubuntu, is built from a Debian base.

Debian pursues ‘freedom’ with an almost zealot-like religious fervour and has long been leading the fight for open-source software. It’s fair to say the current free software movement owes a great debt to Debian’s leadership over the decades.

Aside from being huge advocates for freedom, Debian also delivers a rock solid distribution that mirrors the ethics it espouses. It’s legendary focus on stability and support throughout the OS lifecycle rightly earns Debian a place on our recommended list.

Not only that, Debian is available for almost every architecture, every cloud service and every piece of hardware it’s possible to run a computer system on. Along with that comes an uncountable number of experts ready to help you whatever your needs.

It’s not as ‘fancy’ as some distros, nor as easy for newcomers, but Debian is part of the bedrock of the Linux world and a stellar choice for replacing a CentOS system.

OpenSUSE

The author can’t do justice to OpenSUSE, having last played with it over a decade ago. What we can say is that modern OpenSUSE offers an extremely well rounded alternative to Debian or RHEL based distributions.

OpenSUSE’s commitment to open-source and software freedom goes further than most. It has tools like the Open Build System and OpenQA, as well as excellent technology such as YaST or MicroOS.

It’s fair to say OpenSUSE doesn’t have as large a share of the pie as other distros but it’s Enterprise offerings more than make up for that with their excellent range of options.

WHM, cPanel and Plesk

Whilst Plesk has supported several operating systems for some time now, the 800lb Gorilla of the web hosting world, cPanel/WHM, was staunchly a RHEL derivative only.

That was until CentOS announced it’s change of direction and the curtailing of support for CentOS 8.

As of version 102 cPanel will officially support Ubuntu 20.04.

Version 102? Aren’t we only on version 98 now?

Yes, which means you can’t install cPanel on Ubuntu…yet.

But given cPanel versions bump up by 2 roughly every couple of months, and there are 6 versions to go…expect Ubuntu support somewhere around Oct-Dec 2021.

Wrapping it all up…

Well, this was a bit of a bigger post than our usual OS End of Life notices! And with 5 months to go things are still evolving rapidly.

We ourselves will be carefully monitoring the developments on the various replacement distros over the coming months. We’ll also be keenly exploring the opportunities afforded by companies like cPanel supporting different distributions such as Ubuntu.

If you need to jump ship right now but need to maintain compatibility with CentOS 8, you should consider AlmaLinux. It’s certainly leading the race to be a true CentOS 8 replacement, if you ignore Oracle’s offering.

Having read this post you might feel that the choices open to you right now might seen overwhelming. If you want some help deciding then we encourage you to get in touch with us. Our team of expert System Administrators have years of experience guiding customers in complex choices like this one.

We’d love to help you find the right solution for your needs!

 

Feature image by Trim Nilsen licensed: unsplash

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