Of all of the virtues that backers of open-source software tout, widespread availability of enterprise-level support is not among them.
In fact, a lack of support has been a drawback for most corporate IT decision-makers when they look to add open-source tools to their software stacks, said a panel of users and vendors at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco last week.
The panelists noted that apart from Linux vendors such as Red Hat and Novell, the companies selling open-source software today are mostly single-product firms barely out of the start-up stage.
Panelist Brian Howard, senior vice president for corporate planning and architecture at shipping firm APL, said the dearth of support options limits the ability of users to easily switch from one open-source product to another -- something that has been perceived as an advantage of the tech-nology.
Howard contended that open-source users are effectively locked into products as a result of the scarcity of support providers. "There are a lot more people standing in front of me who say they can support my .Net stack than people who say they can support open-source," he said.
The panelists said that large companies are more likely to prefer the uncomplicated safety net of being able to turn to a single support provider in the event of problems.
"More of our customers are telling us they want to try open-source but that they have concerns," said panelist Philip Robinson, an open-source manager in Hewlett-Packard's consulting group.
Small suppliers emerge
HP and rival IBM are among the few large vendors providing enterprise support for open-source software. At the same time, a number of small, third-party companies are emerging that provide integration, maintenance and interoperative certification for open-source applications.
Some of those companies, such as start-ups OpenLogic, Virtuas Solutions, Cignex Technologies and SpikeSource, claim to offer all-in-one support that competes with or complements the HP and IBM offerings.
"People don't want 150 support contracts; they don't want to have to monitor 150 Web sites," said panelist Steven Grandchamp, CEO of Broomfield, Colo.-based OpenLogic. However, Grandchamp added that the number of open-source support options for enterprise users is growing fast.
On the other hand, Boyd Hemphill, a database administrator at the Texas Education Agency, said he doesn't need a single vendor to support all of his open-source products. The department's open-source library includes Red Hat Linux, the MySQL database, Eclipse development tools, the Apache Web server and the PostNuke content management system.
"The only support I'm interested in is for Red Hat. Everything else I can find on my own," Hemphill said, citing his posts to open-source forums that resulted in personal responses from top vendor executives.
Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Research, said that such ad hoc support isn't adequate for most large enterprises.
"If a server at a college goes down, it means a whole lot less than a server used to crunch business applications going down," he said.
Moreover, King said, big businesses tend to see working with small software vendors as both an inconvenience -- because of billing and invoicing issues -- and a financial risk.