Cumulus Networks is Linux in Name Only

by Ostatic Staff - Jun. 21, 2013

Cumulus Networks recently unveiled their flagship product, Cumulus Linux, as Sam reported yesterday, but don't let the name fool you. Although Cumulus Linux is based on Debian, it is not open source. It is an operating system optimized for a short list of networking devices. Cumulus Linux has an impressive list of capabilities designed for a modern data center, but using the Linux name when they are not giving back to the community is a missed opportunity.

Cumulus Networks repeatedly states that they want to "bring the Linux revolution to your network", but it appears that they are missing the point. Capabilities are one thing, and the software defined network and data center are certainly the future, but the Linux revolution was not about what a Linux distribution could do when it was shipped by the vendor. It was about the community as a whole having access to the source code so that everyone could keep making it better. Cumulus Networks is benefiting from the work done by the community, and holding back their contributions so they can charge licensing fees. You know, like Microsoft.

From the FAQ:

Is Cumulus Linux open source?

Cumulus Linux is not open source but contains a large number of open source components. Those open source components are are available in Debian or other upstream repositories. Cumulus Linux's proprietary intellectual property encompasses IP surrounding hardware acceleration for which Cumulus Networks is not in the position to distribute source code. For the rest of Cumulus Linux functionality, Cumulus Networks is committed to pushing bug fixes and enhancements into the open source community.

Also relevant:

How is Cumulus Linux licensed?

Cumulus Linux is licensed on a per instance basis. Each deployed network system requires a license. Licenses are provided for a specific term and are bundled as part of a subscription. All software functionality is available with the subscription. A Cumulus Linux subscription includes support and maintenance of the software in addition to the license rights.

Cumulus Networks is hoping to leverage the work done by the community in Linux, as well as the expertise of Linux sysadmins and devops. They position Cumulus Linux as the "Linux experience" we are used to:

Cumulus Linux is different from other network Operating Systems because it is not a Linux-based OS, it IS Linux and offers the entirety of the Linux experience on networking hardware.

With the obvious exception of access to the source code and being able to install on as many systems as needed. In some ways, Cumulus Linux continues the trend of many other data center vendors like VMware and Big IP who base their systems off of Linux, but Cumulus seems far more brash by putting Linux in the name of their product and claiming to offer "the entirety of the Linux experience". The obvious right way to do this would be to follow the Red Hat example and allow a "CentOS for Cumulus" spin-off.

It is possible that I'm being unreasonably hard on the company. After all, they are spreading the use of Linux into somewhat new areas, and they claim to be constrained by intellectual property claims outside their control. I would love to hear your opinion on the matter in the comments. Could there be a case for legal action enforcing the GPL to force Cumulus Networks to release their source code?