Big gun or niche vendor?

So you're thinking of using Linux in your company's IT department, but you don't know where to turn.

Do you call on one of the big boys of the Linux marketplace -- IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. or Red Hat Inc. -- for step-by-step guidance and deployment? Or do you research the possibilities with your IT staff and chart your own course of action for a Linux deployment?

According to those facing that choice as they evaluate Linux here at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in the Moscone Center, the answer is apparently a little bit both.

Kumar Gajjar, vice president of software engineering at Milpitas, Calif.-based start-up Confluence Networks, said his fledgling company is looking at Linux to run its IT as it prepares to build and sell network-attached storage (NAS) boxes to customers.

For Gajjar, finding help from just one vendor would allow him to concentrate on getting his business going without having to track down answers on his own to any last-minute software driver problem or crisis. "I'm looking for someone to support me," he said.

"I don't want to go to 10 guys. So I'm going to IBM or Red Hat," or another vendor that can meet all of the company's Linux deployment, configuration and support requirements, he said.

While smaller, more specialized vendors may in some cases have better technologies than the larger, broad-brush companies, Gajjar said he can simplify his IT needs and keep things more manageable by selecting one overall vendor.

Duane Henderson, IS manager at the Butte County Behavioral Health Center in Chico, Calif., said he's considering Linux as a way to replace an aging Digital Equipment Corp. VAX legacy system that's running an old Oracle relational database for patient records. But as he searches for a replacement to be deployed within the next 18 months, Henderson said he's guided by past IT experiences with smaller vendors that have been more responsive to his needs than the giant companies.

"I've always gotten better service from the smaller vendors," he said. "Their lives are at stake."

With some 500 users, Henderson said he has many of the same IT requirements as much larger businesses, including the need to do more with less money due to state budget cuts that have hit the mental health and drug treatment agency hard. By considering Linux, he said he can get rid of escalating licensing fees for Microsoft Corp. software used by employees, while giving his users open-source office software that can fulfill their needs at much lower costs.

Alan Flint, systems applications and programming manager at Richmond, Calif.-based frozen meat company Richmond Wholesale, said his philosophy about selecting vendors is to go with best-of-breed providers that can help give his company the hardware and software that's needed.

He's looking to use the Linux operating systems created by Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat because it is being supported by big-name partners, including IBM, HP and Dell Computer Coro. Flint is looking to replace Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office on about 100 desktops with Linux and open-source office packages that will cost far less and give users the same types of capabilities.

Sometimes, though, going with a smaller company is more beneficial for non-mission-critical needs because those companies can provide more personalized service, Flint said. If its "fluff" software or hardware, he said, and the vendor should go under, it's not a huge loss.

On the other hand, if he's considering major items such as operating systems or hardware platforms, then larger vendors are his preference "because I know they'll be there for the long haul," he said.

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