Earlier this morning I finished up a podcast with Patrick Green, a Linux consultant and migration expert. Green, a native of Chicago, saw his fair share of ups and downs as a Linux consultant and entrepreneur in the late 1990’s and early 00’s, so I thought it would be best to talk with him about the strengths, successes, challenges and even failures of Linux support today.
The query isn’t out of the blue. To close out 2006, SearchEnterpriseLinux.com conducted a broad survey of its readership about a host of present day Linux and open source software issues. Support, surprisingly or unsurprisingly depending on where your experience with the matter lies, made the list as a “barrier to adoption.”
This is not to say that the support structure for Linux and other open source software is viewed as inadequate. Just three years ago SearchEnterpriseLinux.com reported that only the most diligent of IT managers were considering Linux or open source in their data centers. At the time, Linux deployments in mission critical areas just didn’t happen as they do today because they lacked the standard commercial support that businesses were accustomed to receiving from IBM, Microsoft and others. This perception, some of it earned and some not, was one of the main reasons SUSE Linux couldn’t compete and its founders chose to sell to Novell.
Since then, however, Red Hat dropped support of older Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) versions to streamline the cost of support. Ubuntu, based on Debian, had commercial support in two years–an accomplishment Ubuntu corporate sponsor Canonical Ltd. said indicates the community got the message that support is of extreme importance. HP made a bundle supporting Debian in Europe. The list goes on.
But what also goes on is this residual effect wherein IT managers not accustomed to Linux continue to view it as less supported and more difficult to administer than Windows, for example. Fair or unfair, it’s out there, and as of the end of 2006 IT managers — and these are somewhat pro-Linux guys who read SearchEnterpriseLinux.com, mind you — are still listing support as a barrier. This is even in light of the cost savings and success associated with Linux and open source software. IDC, as you may know, says open source will go gangbusters in 2011,with revenues through the roof.
So some of this is a skewed perception, the result of Old Guard admins who were raised in the late 1980’s and early 90’s on a diet of Unix and Windows, and who are not as familiar with Linux as they could be. These guys are aware of the forums and mailing lists and the fact that Red Hat sells a very robust (albeit premium-priced) support structure, sure, but are they *really* aware?
Green, in our discussion last week and subsequent podcast this morning, doesn’t seem to think so. He thinks some due diligence and re-education is in order; some hard work on the part of IT staffs to demonstrate the savings of open source AND the richness of the support offered by the major distros and leading commercial open source companies to their higher ups and CIOs.
But that’s not all there is to it. There’s also a documentation problem. Documentation exists but it’s not uniform across the board. Green suggests commercial vendors put some serious effort into making their documentation hum. And this is all while they re-educate users on the importance of community forums, chat channels, and mailing lists. In other words, the support outlets that some open source advocates take for granted.
There’s so much more to be written about this topic. It’s as broad as it is deep, and it’s definitely on the radar of more than a few IT pros out there in the trenches of today’s data center. Information and education are key, and it’s something we here at the Log and SearchEnterpriseLinux.com take seriously enough to dedicate a substantial amount of time and effort into addressing.
All that said… What’s your criteria for evaluating an open source company? Linux vendors? Linux communities (Ubuntu, Debian, etc)? How far have things come, in your opinion, from even just 4-5 years ago? Are users today still doing a lot of their own support? As for the criteria for evaluating support question, here are some examples: time of response, quality of first contact support person, how quickly your question moves up the help ladder, exclusions from contract or things not covered, flexibility, cost, etc. Choose your own adventure, but with support.
It’s been a long time coming (perhaps too long, eh Jan?), but SearchEnterpriseLinux.com will soon be running a regularly updated series on the broad topic of Linux support in the data center. Having a user-generated list of support criteria and some testimonials in place will not only help you get your job done better (and save a buck or two), it will also help your fellow open source community leaders do the same. You guys swap code all the time. How about we try the same with support war stories?