Community Spotlight: Getting to know Neil Hanlon and Rocky Linux
Some people say that development isn’t coding; it’s problem-solving. I don’t think that’s totally true, but it’s certainly core to what we do! Problem-solving is one of the skills I admire most in this field — when developers recognize an unmet need or a gap in the industry’s current offerings, they rise to meet it by building the solution. (That’s how Fastly was founded — Artur, Tyler, and Simon were frustrated by existing CDN options, so they set out to build something better.)
Rocky Linux, a member of our Fast Forward Program, is an open-source enterprise operating system designed to be 100% bug-for-bug compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. When the news broke that CentOS (Rocky’s predecessor) had reached EOL, Gregory Kurtzer and Rocky’s early team set out to build a new distribution that would achieve the early goals of CentOS.
Rocky and its community are a powerful example of how insight and initiative can not only breed innovation, but also inspire. The response was incredible when Gregory reached out to engage the community to help build Rocky. I wanted to learn more about Rocky’s history, find out what’s new, and what they’re planning next – so I sat down for a conversation with Neil Hanlon, Rocky’s infrastructure lead.
Hannah: Let's start with some background: how did Rocky Linux come to be, and what drew you to the project?
Neil: Rocky Linux was founded – basically – in a comment from a Gregory Kurtzer blog post on the CentOS Blog in December of 2020 announcing the change in direction for CentOS to CentOS Stream. Greg mentioned he had been thinking of starting a new CentOS clone, and invited folks to a Slack, which was quickly filled with over 10,000 people wanting to know what they could do to help.
It was a whirlwind of text, with hundreds of messages per minute at times flying by. I somehow found myself wrapped up in the middle of it, leading the infrastructure team with a new friend and cohort, Taylor Goodwill. I was drawn to the project by the idea of being part of something bigger and using my knowledge and skills to help evolve and improve the Enterprise Linux community. The folks I've met along the way – and get to collaborate with on a daily basis – have been the highlight of working on Rocky Linux.
Hannah: Why was it important to you (and the community) to build an open source, community-supported operating system? What's the benefit for enterprises?
Neil: In the wake of Red Hat's decision to change direction to CentOS Stream, a lot of users felt lost, with a lot of unknowns staring at them. While it turns out that for many people, Stream is a fine option, there are still a great number of folks who want or need a rebuild like Rocky, and that's exactly what we aim to do.
Setting out to build Rocky, we didn't want only to reproduce what CentOS was but to ensure that everything is done in a manner that allows others to reproduce our work. The best way we can ensure that the sometimes-arcane knowledge of how to compose an Enterprise Linux OS isn't lost to time by creating tools and processes which allow for full transparency and reproducibility. By doing things this way, we try to guard against corporate influence since everything we do can be easily forked and recreated.
Hannah: So you released 8.7 and 9.1 towards the end of last year. What's new?
Neil: Wow ... lots of things are new in v9.1! See our release notes here for a full listing (https://docs.rockylinux.org/release_notes/9_1/), but here's a summary:
The Rocky Linux 9 series is built with Peridot, our new open source build system. This build system enables us to support more architectures, including ppc64le and s390x. It’s also made development much easier for our special interest groups.
Rocky Linux 9.1 ships with the latest and greatest Enterprise Linux kernel version, 5.14.0-70. Development toolchains and runtimes have been updated as well of course, with GCC 11.2.1, glibc 2.34, and binutils 2.35.2.
cgroup v2 is enabled by default in Rocky Linux 9. Many containerization tools include features requiring this next modernized cgroup API.
Rocky Linux 9.1 in particular includes Keylime, a remote machine attestation tool that can continually monitor the integrity of remote machines.
Hannah: How did the release go? Were there any surprises?
Neil: We've only been doing this in real-time for about 2 years, but sometimes it feels like we've been doing this for over a decade. Regardless of the time we've spent on producing the Rocky Linux distribution, we still encounter many surprises along the way. Thankfully most of the surprises are pleasant ones.
A big constant for us in every release has been the incredible support of our community!
Hannah: What led you to choose Fastly? What role did our CDN play in this release?
Neil: I've used Fastly in the past, both personally and professionally. I've always enjoyed the features Fastly provides and the devops-first methodology for deploying and running services at and around the edge. Fastly operates as a caching layer for the Rocky Linux release artifacts, allowing us to serve and cache even large files like our ISOs close to our users. On release day, using Fastly as a shield is an enormous boon to the infrastructure team's confidence in a good release. We could do it without a CDN like Fastly, but it would be very difficult. We're incredibly grateful for Fastly's continued support.
Hannah: What's next on the Rocky Linux roadmap?
Neil: We're getting very close to launching the first board of directors for the Rocky Enterprise Software Foundation, the legal entity that houses the Rocky Linux project. This has been a long time coming and is really exciting! The new charter, bylaws, and organization structure are meant to formalize and protect the promises we've made to the community about remaining a free, open source enterprise operating system in perpetuity.
Hannah: How can the Fastly developer community get involved, and where can they learn more about the project?
Neil: Our main community venue is our Mattermost chat at https://chat.rockylinux.org, which is also available on IRC on Libera at #rockylinux. We also have a forum at https://forums.rockylinux.org, and mailing lists at https://lists.resf.org. In terms of getting involved and learning more, I recommend joining us in chat and jumping into the conversation! Of course, we’re also on Github with all our open source software projects.