October 6, 2023

AlmaLinux obtains FIPS certification, the US security standard for Enterprise Linux distributions

TuxCare's investment in AlmaLinux's FIPS certification highlights its emphasis on security and reliability, setting it apart from rivals like Rocky Linux.

AlmaLinux FIPS Certification

AlmaLinux continues to consolidate its position as an independent and reliable Linux distribution, further distinguishing itself by obtaining FIPS certification. This milestone represents not only a security recognition, but also a significant step towards large-scale adoption in enterprise and government environments.

Its Own Entity Outside OpenELA

AlmaLinux stands out as one of the rare distributions created as alternatives to RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) that have chosen not to join OpenELA. OpenELA is an association that brings together various Linux distributions with the aim of sharing RHEL compatible sources. AlmaLinux's decision to remain outside this association has allowed the distribution to follow an independent development path, focusing on specific requirements and standards that best suit its ambitions and user community.

ABI Compatible and Beyond

Before reaching the prestigious milestone of FIPS certification, AlmaLinux had already affirmed its ABI (Application Binary Interface) compatibility with RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux). This technical aspect is fundamental for a number of reasons.

The ABI, or Application Binary Interface, is a set of rules and specifications that determine the interaction between different software components at the binary level. In practice, the ABI ensures that applications compiled for a given version of an operating system can work without problems on another compatible version of the same operating system or on a clone of it.

ABI compatibility with RHEL means that AlmaLinux can run software designed specifically for RHEL without the need for modifications or adaptations. This makes AlmaLinux a particularly attractive choice for companies and developers who have already invested in RHEL-based applications and infrastructure but who are looking for more flexible or cost-effective alternatives.

For users and developers, ABI compatibility eliminates many barriers to software migration. There is no need to worry about rewriting or adapting the source code, and the system libraries on which the applications are based remain consistent. This facilitates a smoother transition and reduces implementation costs and time.

Establishing ABI compatibility with RHEL is not only a sign of technical reliability, but also represents a significant step for AlmaLinux in positioning itself as a serious and reliable Linux distribution. This is particularly relevant when you consider that AlmaLinux has also managed to obtain FIPS certification, further expanding its reach in terms of compliance and security.

What does it mean to be FIPS certified?

FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) certification is a recognition of high importance in the field of information security, issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the United States. Obtaining this certification means that AlmaLinux has passed a rigorous series of tests and evaluations to ensure that the distribution is in line with federal security standards. This goes far beyond a simple declaration of conformity; it is a tangible commitment to system-level security.

As reported the announcement page, compatibility can be verified in AlmaLinux 9 directly from the command openssl:

AlmaLinux-9-FIPS-Certification

Technical Details of FIPS Certification

  1. Cryptographic Security: FIPS certification requires that all cryptographic modules used in the distribution comply with FIPS 140-2 or FIPS 140-3 standards. This ensures that the encryption is robust and resistant to various types of attacks.
  2. Key Management: The certification imposes strict guidelines on the generation, storage and management of cryptographic keys, ensuring that they are handled in a secure environment.
  3. Access Control: FIPS requires extremely rigorous access control mechanisms, ranging from simple two-factor authentication to more advanced methods such as the use of smart cards and other security hardware devices.

Competitive Advantage over Other RHEL-Derivative Distributions

While AlmaLinux has achieved FIPS certification, other RHEL-derived distributions, such as Rocky Linux, have not yet reached this level of compliance and security. This places AlmaLinux in a clearly advantageous position for several reasons:

  1. Adoption in Critical Environments: FIPS certification qualifies AlmaLinux for use in environments where security is a top priority, such as in government, military, and organizations that handle sensitive data.
  2. Developer and Business Trust: Certification increases the confidence that developers and enterprises can have in the distribution, making it a more attractive choice for applications and services that require high levels of security.
  3. Differentiation in the Market: In a panorama of Linux distributions that are very similar to each other, FIPS certification offers a badge of quality that can be a decisive factor in choosing a distribution.

Practical implications

With FIPS certification, AlmaLinux can now be used in environments where information security is crucial. This includes industries such as government, defense and other organizations that handle highly sensitive data. In practical terms, certification translates into the addition of two specific packages: openssl and kernel. These can be installed from the TuxCare repositories, making AlmaLinux immediately FIPS compatible.

Sponsorship by TuxCare

Obtaining FIPS certification is a process that requires a significant investment in both time and financial resources. CloudLinux's TuxCare division sponsored the entire process for AlmaLinux, underlining the importance the distribution places on high standards of security and reliability.

TuxCare Logo

The Cost and Complexity of the Certification Process

FIPS certification is not an easily achievable goal. It requires a series of rigorous tests and detailed evaluations conducted by accredited third-party bodies. Every component of the system, from cryptographic modules to key management and access control mechanisms, must undergo thorough analysis to ensure compliance with FIPS standards. This process can be both time-consuming and expensive, often requiring months of work and a considerable financial investment.

TuxCare's sponsorship is not only a sign of financial support, but also an indicator of the level of seriousness and commitment that AlmaLinux and CloudLinux place in creating a high-quality Linux distribution. TuxCare, as a division of CloudLinux specializing in support and maintenance services for Linux servers, understands the critical importance of security and reliability in enterprise and government environments.

While AlmaLinux has made this strategic investment to achieve FIPS certification, other related distributions, such as Rocky Linux, have not yet reached this level of compliance. This puts AlmaLinux in an advantageous position, offering a level of security and reliability that few other distributions can match. This is particularly relevant for organizations that require strict compliance and want to minimize risks associated with data security.

Towards Adoption in Enterprise Sectors

While FIPS certification might seem like a technical detail, it actually represents a crucial step for AlmaLinux on its path to adoption in enterprise and government environments. This undoubtedly reinforces its reputation as a safe and reliable Linux distribution, setting it apart in a crowded market of alternatives to RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

However, this raises some interesting questions, especially when considering the “cloned” nature of AlmaLinux compared to RHEL. If RHEL is FIPS certified e AlmaLinux, being a clone, has obtained the same certification, one might reasonably ask why other technically similar distributions, such as Rocky Linux, have not yet obtained this recognition and if they ever will.

The answer may lie not so much in the technical differences between distributions, but rather in the bureaucratic and financial processes behind obtaining certifications like FIPS. AlmaLinux had the benefit of being supported by TuxCare, a division of CloudLinux, which provided the financial resources and expertise needed to navigate the complicated path to certification.

In contrast, initiatives like Rocky Linux, which are primarily supported by the community, may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining official certifications. Without the support of a corporate entity with significant resources, the path to certification can be much more difficult, regardless of the technical quality or compliance of the deployment.

In conclusion, while FIPS certification positions AlmaLinux as one of the most promising Linux distributions for enterprise and government applications, it also raises questions about the fairness of the certification process and the challenges that community-backed distributions face in achieving similar recognition.

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