A strategy for open source

Ready to take the open source plunge? Just don't take off without first fastening the rope securely to the bridge. A look at key adoption issues.

So you've done the maths and decided there may be a good business case for Linux after all. You certainly aren't alone in taking what, just a few years ago, was seen as the risk management equivalent of Bungy jumping. Just make sure you don't dive into the world of open source without fastening the rope securely to the bridge.

Dr Ihain Mackenzie has had enough of Linux. A PhD in applied mathematics under his belt, Mackenzie now runs Education in the Workplace (EW), a small systems integrator based in Sydney. EW manages networks and applications for about 15 small businesses with several thousand users across greater Sydney, providing technological advice and customer support, and making sure everything remains in tip-top shape.

With constant cost pressures on the lower end of the market, it's not surprising Mackenzie explored potential uses for Linux. Years ago, the team built a Linux-based mail server it used at some client sites for several years, until driver incompatibilities and complex support pushed it back towards a Microsoft Windows Server and Exchange messaging solution. "The maintenance [effort] was very high," says Mackenzie. "We needed to have a specialist come make any changes for us. He was onsite, but not always available."

Years later, Mackenzie came across a local startup company selling packaged Linux servers that bundled remote Windows desktop support, intrusion detection, and a host of other open source-based features into a remote office server package appealing enough for EW to agree to install these systems at several client sites.

Despite the bells and whistles it offered, stubborn incompatibilities remained. For example, the servers' virtual private network (VPN) client refused to connect with VPN servers in other offices to carry critical application traffic. And once this issue was resolved, a new problem with the Linux-based intrusion detection system arose. At another customer site, a fresh Linux installation in thin client configuration was producing continual application freezes.

While he was originally optimistic about Linux's possibilities, the problems that have plagued Mackenzie's clients have driven him away from the operating system and its related applications. "I originally advised clients not to put all their eggs in one basket [by installing an all-Microsoft solution]," he recalls. "But we've had nothing but trouble with the machines."

"It really comes down to support. Our provider was trying to help us, but eventually gave up and didn't respond to our enquiries anymore. All of our people are certified in Microsoft and Cisco products and have first and second degrees in IT -- they're no schmucks. But we've hit this brick wall in terms of Linux, and we'll never sell another one of these boxes again."

Linux, along with other open source applications such as OpenOffice, Plone, Mono, and the ubiquitous MySQL, Computer Associates (CA) Ingres and IBM Cloudscape databases, has become an increasingly common fixture within the corporate environment. Yet even the strongest technical pedigree is no guarantee of market success. No matter how many companies are happily using Linux, the persistence of horror stories such as Mackenzie's reflects both the extent of the image war Linux is still fighting, and the critical importance of providing accessible, effective support where there has often been little. From zero to support team
By all accounts, Linux is on a roll. IDC has projected Asia-Pacific Linux software license revenues outside of Japan will grow 78.6 percent from AU$8.46 million in 2004 to AU$15.14 million this year, particularly as software innovation improves available Linux-based tools and applications to the standard of existing rivals.

In 2008, IDC expects sales to reach 10 times last year's level, or AU$91.14 million on a compound annual growth rate of 82 percent. And revenue from Linux server hardware is growing at 22.8 percent annually, nearly six times the 3.8 percent annual growth of the overall server market.

Most companies' investment in open source software is likely to begin with Linux, which is typically used as a platform for both commercial and open source applications. By 2008, IDC believes such growth will increase open source environments from seventh to fourth place on the list of most popular operating environments, with 25.7 percent of all servers running Linux by 2008.

More importantly, the use of these systems is changing: sales of 2-CPU servers (appropriate for use in larger-scale computing clusters that support databases and other mission-critical applications) now make up 74 percent of all Linux servers sold, outstripping sales of the single-CPU servers typically used for less business-critical functions such as Web and file serving. Such a changing profile reflects growing confidence in Linux, and indeed the move to open source has, in many ways, become a confidence game. For companies stepping into Linux for the first time, a positive experience with that environment will be critical before there is any corporate will to explore the myriad of other open source applications gaining traction. Most customers will expect and accept a few stumbles on the road to Linux, but an overly or chronically negative experience -- such as that had by Mackenzie's team -- will be like a bowl of ice water on their burning ambition to change.

This presents a problem for what has traditionally been a largely informal community of open source enthusiasts providing technical support to others out of the kindness of their hearts. Automation of many enquiries through online self-service can improve support marginally, but building a viable enterprise-class support operation is all about guaranteeing access to competent, reliable people. That, as every company knows, can be a serious problem in the case of technologies that have only recently entered the mainstream.

Red Hat Systems, the most readily identifiable open source company that brings Linux to the enterprise, has leveraged what was previously one of many Linux distributions into a massive growing services business, currently worth nearly AU$261.1 million a year. Red Hat just so happens to install Linux servers.

In its most recent quarter, Red Hat sold 98,000 new subscriptions to its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) software and support offering -- a 13 percent increase from the previous quarter.

Since the provision of excellent support is a major part of its value proposition, Red Hat has had to quickly ramp up its support capabilities to sustain such raging growth.

"There was previously very little organisation in Asia-Pacific around support," confesses Martin Messer, Red Hat Asia-Pacific senior manager for global support. "In the open source model, we have always been able to leverage this massive global development team that builds the product, so we don't have to hire the entire community."

From a standing start in Australia in October 2003, Red Hat now employs 22 Australian support technicians and nearly 100 support staff worldwide. Since the launch of the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) software and support offering in May 2002, those staff have been taking care of an increasingly enterprise-class clientele with growing sophistication and expectations of top-tier service. The company's options: provide it, or fall back into obscurity and bring all the goodwill Linux has earned in recent years crashing down with it.

"We've seen a massive change in the way we do support; we've really figured out how a global support model should work," says Messer. "Linux is something you have to understand down to the bare bones, and it is rare to come across someone who's a rock star in open source technology. But we hire passionate technologists and get them working within our [culture]. When we do find them we focus on developing a really high level of expertise -- but I spend more time with them on soft skills [such as customer service] than on hard technical skills." Closing the skills gap
Red Hat isn't the only company whipping Australia's unwashed masses into shape to support the growing flood of local open source users. IT leaders IBM, Sun Microsystems, HP and Oracle are also loudly rattling their open-source sabres, bulking out existing support organisations to offer customers the backing of global support groups with technical experts numbering in the hundreds and thousands. IBM, for its part, has set up a dedicated Linux Technology Centre in Canberra, dedicated to giving more than a dozen Linux boffins a place to apply their skills.

"If customers have an issue with Linux they can call our customer support centre and get help," says Ivan Kladnig, Linux business development manager within IBM's ANZ Software Group. "We are essentially treating Linux as mainstream and as another product within our portfolio, and I've found that support is becoming less and less of an issue for our customers."

Novell, with years of experience in supporting NetWare and expanding open-source credentials courtesy of its recent SuSE Linux buy, has grown its support organisation to more than 30 field engineers and 15 call centre support staff. All have been certified on SuSE Linux, which has given the once-floundering company a new lease on life as a focal point for the open source community.

Providing suitable support for enterprise customers requires a combination of in-house skills, third-party support providers, and even the ability to support competing platforms such as as Red Hat if customers demand, says David Lenz, director of sales and marketing for Novell Asia-Pacific.

"We've got to be realistic," he says. "Customers will be looking for solutions, and they will be looking for the ability to have choice about their infrastructure, and vendors will have to come up with the ability to support these arrangements."

There is a downside to this investment. With top-tier companies snapping up Linux skills, the open source market -- particularly in Australia, with a relatively small population traditionally seen as a centre of excellence to support users in our heavily populated Asian neighbours -- may well struggle to find and keep enough qualified Linux staffers to provide the type of support that's required.

Big vendors may drive the trend towards open source, but they can't own the entire open source services market. Here, as in other markets, it's likely that open source will see a natural grouping of target markets with SMEs and many large businesses establishing long-term support relationships with smaller value-added resellers (VARs). Strong relationships with such VARs are essential for Linux to trickle down into the mass business market, where millions of SMEs represent a significant but elusive opportunity for open source.

Small VARs, however, will struggle to offer the competitive salary packages necessary to lure Linux-philes into the coherent support teams they need. The worrying potential result -- a gap in skills that could leave big customers with most of the big vendors' ear-time, and the rest of the business world relying on patchy support from resource-strained VARs and disorganised online support forums.

To be fair, being small doesn't necessarily mean that a company can't provide good support. A recent independent survey of 185 customers of JBoss, which produces the JBoss open source Java application server, scored the company's support at 5.42 out of 7; larger, proprietary competitors received lower scores including BEA (4.27), IBM (3.96) and Oracle (4.46). That's reassuring to some extent, although it must be remembered that surveys of users are inherently biased because customers only tend to stay customers if they're happy.

IDC has predicted that the overall Asia-Pacific market for support services will grow at nine percent annually through 2008. Despite increasing customer demand, however, the ability to cash in on this market is far from guaranteed.

Whether the Linux community can make it or break it will depend on its ability to pull itself up by its proverbial bootstraps and provide the kind of support corporate customers expect.

User surveys repeatedly suggest open source providers are starting with a strong disadvantage: a January survey of 1000 European software developers sponsored by BEA found that while 60 percent would use open source software in principle, nearly 70 percent were concerned about the updates, maintenance and support accompanying that software. Such caution has typified surveys of enterprise customers since the world learned to spell 'Linux' many years ago and it will be some time before those perceptions go away. The personal approach
Given the ongoing uncertainty over availability of Linux skills, many early adopters are taking the build-their-own approach to open source. Training existing engineers in the ways and means of the new paradigm -- and bringing many closet open source advocates out of the cold to assume proper roles as support technicians -- has become another viable option for large companies keen to mitigate the risks of uncertain open source support.

At the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA), open source has become a way of life. After years of developing with Linux and other open source tools, the RTA last year passed the point-of-no-return with open source -- it began a refresh of its desktop fleet that's eventually expected to put more than 3000 Linux desktops in front of its users.

RTA CIO Greg Carvouni says the RTA expects to trim desktop management costs by 20 percent through changes such as the replacement of Microsoft Office with Sun Microsystems StarOffice -- a supported version of the open-source OpenOffice.

Longtime partners Sun and Apple are providing some support, but on the whole, the RTA has kept its support capabilities inhouse, to be managed by its team of more than 200 IT staff. "There is a constant cost in a largish environment of doing upgrades sometimes for little benefit other than to maintain vendor support. But with open source you can drive your own show," says Carvouni.

"It is still early days, and there's not a large systems integration community out there to help you in [open source]. It's a bit chicken-and-egg: until there are more people doing this, it's not really a viable business for [integrators] to become experts at it. On the other hand, if there's no integration help, people that are less capable of running it all on their own are going to have a hard time making it a success. It is better to have some vendor support if you can get it."

Attempts to build internal open source centres-of-excellence will expose aspiring open source customers to the same skills limitations facing larger vendors and systems integrators. Hiring support staff with Linux skills is expensive and time-consuming, and training existing staff members takes time and ongoing financial investment.

Even worse, keeping such staff from being poached by open-source service providers can be extremely difficult, particularly if the Linux market continues to heat up as expected and vendors become desperate to chase lucrative contracts. Such costs must be factored into TCO and ROI calculations being undertaken by any company contemplating an open source investment.

In the long term, Novell's Lenz believes the Linux skills market will normalise as the number of trainees catches up with growing demand. In the meantime, he says supplementing external support capabilities with internal open source skills is a good stopgap.

"As organisations get a better understanding of Linux and what it can do, we will see a further expansion of the Linux capabilities within these organisations," he says. "This may create some issues around recruitment, but as the supply increases I think the demand for resources will increase as well." And then there's the desktop
Until recently, most discussions about Linux in the enterprise have focused on its role as a server platform. But with the launch of several new open-source operating systems -- including Red Hat Desktop, Novell Linux Desktop, and Sun's newly open sourced OpenSolaris environment -- the previously hypothetical idea of using open source operating systems on the desktop has taken on a new life. Many companies are seriously exploring the possibility of cobbling together free open-source desktops that use a variety of tools to integrate with existing proprietary applications.

Not surprisingly, the idea of supporting an open source desktop is likely to send shivers up the spines of IT managers who find it hard enough to manage a known, well-accessorised desktop based on Windows XP. Desktop Linux may be free, but for it to run smoothly technical staff must take on a steep learning curve, and install and use management tools providing similar remote management to those already available in Windows.

Leading Windows systems management firms, ranging from CA to HP and Novell, have already brought such tools to the table, although they tend to be less sophisticated than their Windows counterparts. Yet even with remote management handling functions such as image deployment and software updates, an open source desktop is likely to introduce a considerable support burden simply as users, unaccustomed to the ways and mores of the new environment, flood the help desk with calls for help.

Supporting an open source desktop inhouse can be done, says RTA's Carvouni, but it takes work: "In this registry, a lot of work was done to create an environment of managing," he says. "You discover it's not as easy as it first seems, and you have to do detailed business analysis to understand what [users are] doing."

"Even small things can bring you unstuck; even a browser can change what presents to the user. Slight differences aren't impossible to fix, but if you don't do the analysis first you're going to end up with a very negative customer reaction. When it comes to servicing our desktops in a support sense, we benchmark ourselves against other people."

In the long run, companies weighing up strategies for open source adoption should look to existing vendors first, and if working with a VAR, they should make sure the VAR has both a track record of strong support and enough resources to provide adequate response times. Companies must also resist the urge to customise open source software: start changing and recompiling the code and you'll soon find the terms of your support arrangements changing considerably.

"Support is really about the mainstream products," says Laurie Wong, software business manager with Sun Microsystems. "If customers make changes to them, it becomes a consulting engagement." In other words, get carried away with open source and it could cost you an arm and a leg to support. Stick to top-shelf Linux brands and get familiar with online messaging boards for support on other open source applications and you should do OK.

This is the unspoken message underneath discussions about open source support, and it's one that should resonate with any technical or business manager contemplating the move.

Certainly, the growing number of support options for Linux make the open source option less risky than ever -- but it still has its potential pitfalls. Weigh up all the costs of support and your own requirements for support, and you'll be able to develop a hybrid in-house/outsourced support team capable of bringing your servers--and your users--smoothly into the world of open source. A strategy for open source

  1. Support costs. Don't depend on the kindness of online strangers. If your business depends on open source to operate you must be prepared to pay for support.

  2. Customise carefully. It may be easy to tailor open source apps to your environment, but support firms will take your bill to a whole new level if you modify their supported open source versions.

  3. In support, Linux=open source. Once you have Linux up and running, you may want to investigate other open source applications. Don't expect your support firm to know about them. Install any open source tools but Linux and you may be on your own, so find support channels beforehand.

  4. Support is about people. In the case of Linux, skilled people can be hard to come by--and harder to keep. Plan to spend big on recruiting, training and defending technical staff on Linux, and consider training existing staff.

  5. Management is still sketchy. Carefully match capabilities with features of open source management tools you may be considering.

  6. Coming to a desktop near you. Linux distributions have recently been joined by enterprise-focused desktops. They offer some benefits in certain environments, but expect considerable support costs to contradict licence savings.

  7. Everyone needs a good VAR. Once you get beyond a few large integrators the companies get smaller faster. Compare the capabilities of small firms to ensure you won't be left in the lurch.

  8. Vendors want your environment to work. Use this fact to your advantage when negotiating support contracts.

  9. Support is also a design issue. Find out how much support can be automated, and how many online resources are available to speed user enquiry response.

  10. No platform is an island. Look for support partners that can provide a consistent level of service across all environments, not just one of them.
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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