Open-source software gets a safety net

Open-source software has taken up residence on enterprise networks despite initial concerns that its unconventional version control and support structure would make it a risky bet for corporate IS.

One big reason that companies have moved from playing around with open-source programs, such as Linux, to using them in production networks is that a greatly improved service and support network has emerged.

Whereas at first companies relied solely on an informal network of online developers to get answers to their open source questions, service and support is now available from many sources. These include commercial Linux vendors such as Red Hat Software and Caldera Systems, as well as hardware companies such as Dell Computer and IBM that install Linux on their computers. Also gaining attention are companies, such as Linuxcare and Mission Critical Linux that specialize in supporting open source software, as well as smaller consultancies.

"Certification, support and training opportunities are just exploding out there, and that is definitely contributing to some of the success open source is having," says Michael Prince, chief information officer at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse which is installing Linux desktops at all 280 of its stores.

Companies offering Linux service and support are pitching everything from technical support and training to hardware and software integration.

Linuxcare, for example, offers all those services, plus device driver development and consulting. Others, such as VA Linux, which had a whopper of an initial public offering two weeks ago, are trying to minimize the need for additional service and support by offering turnkey hardware and Linux software systems that are easy to pop into enterprise networks.

Linux support companies have been forging partnerships and releasing new services at a furious pace, and Linuxcare has been among the busiest.

Just this week, for example, Linuxcare announced three acquisitions (Prosa, The Puffin Group and Cheek Consulting) designed to expand its service and support capabilities. The company also aired plans to open nine global service centres to expand its services for customers who use Linux worldwide. The service centres will focus on parallel computing and clustering, application porting, and custom versions of Linux and Linux applications.

Meanwhile, Linuxcare unveiled an agreement with Informix to offer technical support to Informix employees and customers. Linuxcare, which this week announced it has received an additional $US32.5 million in a second round of venture funding, already has contracts in place with companies such as IBM to deliver support to enterprise open source software customers.

Also last week, a company called Mission Critical Linux introduced a service dubbed Secure Service Technology, which alerts Mission Critical via the 'Net when customers' open source systems are acting up. Mission Critical of Lowell, Massachusetts, can then access the systems to monitor the situation and diagnose problems.

Established hardware vendors such as Dell, Compaq and Sun have also been busy showing their support for Linux, Apache and other open source technologies by bundling the software with their hardware. By doing so, these hardware companies are taking some of the challenges out of deploying the software.

Two weeks ago, for instance, Dell announced it would begin factory-installing Red Hat Linux on its servers to exact customer specifications. The No. 2 server maker already offered the operating system on all of its workstations.

These companies aren't oblivious to market research reports that show Apache being used for half of the Web servers in existence and commercial Linux being the fastest-growing server operating system around.

Burlington Coat Factory's Prince says he never had a doubt that service and support would be available for enterprise Linux installations. His company went with Linux over Solaris, which he says was overkill for his applications, and over Windows NT, which he says couldn't match Linux's stability.

"We found Linux to be very stable, and at a technical level we have found answers very easy to come by," he notes. "If we do need help, there are firms that will gladly provide us with support."

Not only are product and support organisations offering basic technical assistance for open source software, but they also are adding more sophisticated services to their repertoires, such as developing device drivers for Linux systems.

Chris Hawk, president of Solid State Design in Denver, says he chose Hewlett-Packard servers running Linux because HP had already gone to the trouble of writing the device drivers he needed to get the servers up and running right away.

Hawk says he has also found that support for Linux is becoming more commonplace on the applications side of the equation, as well. He points to Oracle's announcement that it would have a Linux version of its database software as a good example.

"I was more inclined to go with a Linux database when Oracle announced that they offer a Linux version of their software," he says, noting that support from established vendors is important in the business community in building confidence in any hardware or software platform. "If you are running a business, it means more if you can say, 'We run Oracle,' than something no one has heard of before."

Other users are glad to see commercial entities focusing on open source service and support, but are just as happy to support their own open source installations given that they have access to the source code.

"We have the keys to the city," says Brian Stroh, vice president of information services at Nettaxi.com, an online services provider that uses Apache for its Web servers.

Stroh says companies without the technical expertise should turn to third-party providers for support, but for those with good technical resources, he notes that the technical documentation for open source applications is often more comprehensive than what is available for commercial applications. "Apache documentation is well done and gives us the ability to customise it ourselves, rather than deal with a typical support site and pay for it," he says.

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