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Red Hat support evolves with new Access Insights services

Good vendor support must be predictive, agile, interactive and dynamic. Red Hat claims its support is all of that, but not everyone agrees.

BOSTON – Open source users flock to Red Hat for enterprise support, but not all subscribers like the way the company handles IT issues.

The company recently launched an updated support service. User experience is important to Red Hat Inc., and it dedicated its day-three keynote at the Red Hat Summit last month to its support.

Support is foundational, and being reactive in a crisis situation isn't good enough, said Marco Bill-Peter, vice president of customer experience and engagement at Red Hat. Support needs to be proactive, preventative and lead to engagement.

One New Year's Eve, Bill-Peter's friend, who runs the software development team at a voice over IP provider, got a phone call about traffic overload issues and being ill-prepared. Not long after, another friend, who runs IT for a financial services provider, had a similar experience. 

Being able to call on IT for support, even on a holiday, is important to a business that can't afford to have workloads go offline or experience downtime. However, reactive situations don't make for great support.

Red Hat uses a subscription-based support model that offers different levels of support for customers to purchase exactly what they need and nothing more, said Sander van Vugt, Linux expert and independent trainer and consultant. Subscriptions allow you to upgrade to new versions of Red Hat software and deploy it on physical, virtual or cloud-based servers.

Red Hat support charges users per tool and level of subscription. For example, a 16-core standard one year subscription for the Red Hat JBoss Enterprise Application Platform costs $6,200. Standard support is available for users during business hours, via Web or phone, with an unlimited amount of incidents. Premium level support is available 24/7 for urgent cases.

"Red Hat support is the reason why Red Hat is making almost $2 billion a year," van Vugt said. "Corporate customers don't want to replace their legacy Unix operating systems with something that is free, and where there's nobody to fall back on if things go wrong."

Red Hat support is the reason why Red Hat is making almost $2 billion a year.
Sander van VugtLinux expert and independent trainer and consultant

Users are willing to pay for support so that when something goes wrong, the software vendor can directly help them fix the issue, he added.

"Red Hat's established support model allows them to avoid the transition headaches associated with moving away from more traditional levels of support sold through license [or] maintenance agreements," said Andrew Smith, analyst at Technology Business Research, Inc. based in Hampton, N.H.

To measure support, Red Hat watched customer retention, renewal and new product adoption, as opposed to metrics, such as call resolution times, he said.

"There is a lot of opportunity for Red Hat to capture more services and support revenue, particularly around OpenStack," Smith said. "We expect Red Hat to continue making acquisitions to gain the skills and services they need internally to capitalize on this growth."

But not all customers are satisfied with the level of support they get from Red Hat.

Red Hat's support system relies on email messages to share technical problems; those who prefer voice-to-voice support to walk them through problem solving are out of luck. IT pros who pay Red Hat for technical support often solve problems with online bulletin boards, or call the vendors who sold them proprietary products.

Red Hat's support scheme

Based on user feedback, Red Hat broke the support organization apart around small, technical topics called "intelligent swarms."

Red Hat created a customer portal in 2009 to incorporate JBoss support developers with IT teams. It was built with Red Hat Enterprise Linux, JBoss and OpenShift, and OpenStack will soon be involved, Bill-Peter said. On the portal, Red Hat supplies articles and videos to help users with products.

Red Hat also developed a systems management service that detects issues in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Red Hat Cloud Infrastructure environments that tells users how to resolve them.

"We create tens of thousands of articles every year. How do we funnel that knowledge to you to be precise?" Bill-Peter said.

The new Red Hat Access Insights service allows users to access their data and anticipate reliability, availability, security and performance. It is intended to reduce time spent searching and resolving complications.

Red Hat expects customers to pre-emptively manage their data center. It collects a small amount of data from your system and sends it to Red Hat, which is then proactively analyzed against Red Hat's database of known issues. If there is a critical issue, Red Hat alerts IT with the steps to take to avoid it with security patches, new levels of software, configurations or suggestions.

It's like the navigation system in your car, Bill-Peters said. When there is traffic, the GPS doesn't just warn you of a delay; it helps you avoid the high-traffic areas and gets you to your destination in the quickest way possible.

Red Hat Access Insights for RHEL 6 and 7 is available through the Red Hat Customer Portal or Red Hat Satellite. It is available through an early adopter program, supported in Red Hat Cloud Infrastructure 6.

Red Hat vs. Windows support

Microsoft has been using its support model since the 1990s. Instead of a subscription model like Red Hat's, Microsoft charges a fee per issue. In the event of a problem, Microsoft users call a support line for help.

"During the initial and subsequent support calls, Microsoft may establish a remote connection to your system so that they can see the problem and the machine's configuration firsthand," said one Microsoft MVP, who requested anonymity. He uses the MSDN support model. The MSDN support model is the same as pay-per-incident, but also includes a few free support incidents each year with your subscription. It usually works pretty well, he added.

However, his experiences haven't been all positive.

"I don't call very often -- maybe once a year -- but the last two times that I have called, the support staff didn't have enough knowledge to help me," he said. He felt as if he knew more about the issue than those support professionals did.

When he called about an Office 365 issue, for example, they couldn't fix the problem and gave up after three months of investigation. The support call was refunded since the problem couldn't be fixed.

TBR expects Red Hat to expand its services and support capabilities to capitalize on-demand for its cloud services, and believes the subscription model allows it to do so with marginal opposition, Smith said.

"But it's a race against time, as larger players like Cisco, IBM and Oracle quickly build and buy their way into the conversation," he added.

Executive editor Ed Scannell contributed to this article.

Sharon Zaharoff is the assistant site editor for You can reach her on Twitter at @DataCenterTT.

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