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The top Linux support weaknesses, then and now

Is Linux support enterprise-ready yet? Gaps still exist, users say, even though commercial support for Red Hat, Novell SUSE and even new distros like Ubuntu has improved hugely since canvassed IT managers in 2003.

In 2003, visited the Linux support landscape with a list of Linux support weaknesses. A lot has happened over the past four years, as is evident in the success of Red Hat and Novell's subscription-based support models and the meteoric rise of commercial-grade Ubuntu support, to name a few. But, according to a recent survey of IT managers, support remains a "barrier to adoption" for Linux in the data center. What are your criteria for evaluating support offerings?
Noah Broadwater: If you're willing to pay for it, everyone's support looks greaton paper. At best, support is just insurance and assistance. We all hope that our systems always stay up and everything works as it is designed, but that isn't the real world. Even with redundancies built in, you have to fix the server that failed even if the company is still up. Here are true tests of support:
  • Are they proactively addressing concerns before they become issues?
  • When an issue occurs, do they respond quickly and efficiently (e.g., they don't escalate an issue and waste time by asking the same questions over and over again to get the problem resolved)?
  • Is the support staff customer-friendly?
  • Does the support organization take ownership of the problem even if it is another vendor's problem (e.g., RAID failure, bad network cable, etc.) and act as the mediator instead of just passing the buck?

-- Noah Broadwater, v.p. of information services, Sesame Workshop, New York

Today, we revisit the support list of yesteryear to see how things were, what's changed, what's stayed the same, and why.

  1. Linux support: The first responders

    That was then… There is no 800 number, said consultant Peter Resciniti. Most initial contacts with free support services take place via email. Sometimes, free support teams will send a phone number in response to an email query. Of course, 800 numbers are as helpful as rubber crutches. At the time, many IT managers kept Linux out of mission-critical areas because of this uncertainty. Running Unix or Windows may have been expensive and restrictive, but it was better than the alternative: having an issue at 3 a.m. with a Linux server and not having anyone on the other end of the phone to help deal with it.

    This is now… Those IT managers willing to pay a premium for support can do so with a vendor like Red Hat Inc., which gives you, for $1,499, a one-year, 12x5 phone support, one-year Web, unlimited incidents subscription for 32/64-bit x86 and IBM POWER hardware (unlimited sockets). A premium version is also available for $2,499 and includes 24x7 phone support. Novell Inc. offers a similar three-tiered system ranging from $349 to $799 for basic and standard support. Priority 24x7 support costs $1,499. Each of the tiers is a one-year subscription. zSeries support from Novell ranges from $11,999 to $18,000.

    IT departments can also opt for dedicated Red Hat and Novell engineers, which can be hired for a premium to oversee support over the phone or on site. Dave Cutler, Novell vice president of global service operations, said these "assigned support engineers" take on up to six clients each or can be hired for on-site jobs at a one-to-one ratio. "This is someone who gets to know a customer's environment. When server X falls over, the engineer knows exactly which one it is and why," he said.

    In some cases, the support that Linux distribution vendors provide may even be better than what commercial open source vendors offer. In 2006, John Flores, the system administrator for the University of Texas College of Engineering, began testing a smaller Linux distribution called Xandros for a migration that would eventually see all Microsoft Windows instances removed from his data center. Throughout the process, Flores found that importing new users into the system was difficult.

    "When it became time to import the 5,000 new users into the system for the fall semester, Xandros wrote up a utility for us to import users on a routine basis, with a complete step-by-step how-to," he said. The process took less than 24 hours, said Flores, and didn't cost anything extra. "I wasn't expecting a lot of support, so the fact that we got great support blew me away. I was used to large companies like Microsoft and Sun, where I just expected support to happen, even though it took a while to get the answer I was looking for."

  2. Linux documentation

    That was then... Some online Linux/OSS instructions are very "high level and difficult to decipher," said systems administrator Pati Moss in 2003. IT manager Rick Segeberg agreed: "Newbies to Linux (especially non-programmers) find it difficult to follow the very technical documentation and how-tos that are available," he said. "Most of the technical documentation is done by technical people for technical people."

    This is now...The number two item on the list today remains a thorn in the side of many IT managers dealing with Linux and other open source applications. Patrick Green, a longtime Linux consultant and migration expert and, today, the chief marketing officer for Chicago-based design firm Turtol, said the big problem with Linux support -- with the exception of Red Hat and Novell -- is documentation

    When dealing with most Linux distributions, Green found he often had to create documentation and how-to guides on a case-by-case basis. "If a document did not exist, then I would create it," he said. That's consistent with the experience Flores had with Xandros at the University of Texas. The user script Xandros sent him also arrived with a how-to guide for tweaking and implementation. Xandros also added the how-to guide to its Web site for other users with similar user ID issues.

    Today, as it was in 2003, users must strike a balance between the amount of money saved by using Linux and eliminating licensing fees, and what is lost in terms of time spent writing or searching for specialized documentation or troubleshooting, Green said.

    Alternately, users should bite the bullet and pay for commercial support. "If you go with a company like Red Hat today, you are not only getting a great set of tools, but you are also getting great documentation. Good documentation goes a long way," Green said.

  3. Information overload: Linux mailing lists and newsgroups

    That was then… Information overload is a danger. Mailing lists and newsgroups set up and moderated by the developers are effective only if one has time to read the messages they send out, said IT manager John Ries.

    This is now… Mailing lists, forums and newsgroups remain integral to the Linux support community -- to a point. Commercial Linux distributions like Red Hat and SUSE are stable releases, and much of the testing and tweaking happens in their respective community versions: Fedora Core 7 and openSUSE. Much of the Xen paravirtualization capability now found in both RHEL and SUSE, for example, saw its beginnings in those community distributions.

    The code in these community versions is open source, and handlers know that having many eyes on the code means bugs and vulnerabilities will be caught faster than in proprietary code. An example of this open format can be found on the OpenNMS (an open source distributed network and systems management platform) mailing list "to do list" from June 25:

    Today's Topics:
    1. Rrd StoreByGroup Graphing (rmg_opennms)
    2. Re: Problem with SNMP data collection on windows machines
          (Stefan Mikuszeit)
    3. Re: Problem with SNMP data collection on windows machines
          (Stefan Mikuszeit)
    4. Send KSC Report via Mail/PDF (Stefan Mikuszeit)
    5. Re: Problem with SNMP data collection on windows machines
          (Danny Willis)
    6. Re: Rrd StoreByGroup Graphing (Fraley, Will)

    Mailing list subscribers would then set out coding solutions to the day's bugs and performance issues. Other subscribers will present new problems.

    When dealing with commercial distributions, however, mailing lists and forums are not as big a part of the Linux support structure as they once were. Today, users like Noah Broadwater, the vice president of information services at New York City-based Sesame Workshop, are content to rely on their subscription alone for mission-critical Linux support. Sesame Workshop has been a Novell Premium customer since 1999 and Broadwater said he has "consistently found their support to be first class from the call center to the onsite engineers."

    "Linux support is much better than it was a year ago. It is finally moving into an area where it can go beyond edge services and into the mainstream business applications," he said. "Obviously, there is a lot of caution to be taken in transitioning Linux into roles typically played by the bigger Unix systems, but if properly managed the benefits are enormous."

  4. Linux: The do-it-yourself OS

    That was then… You must have a do-it-yourself attitude, surveyed IT pros said. Good research skills and knowledge of IT basics are important. Accessing free support and implementing complex applications is not a job for the lazy or unschooled.

    This is now… Green maintains that the learning curve associated with supporting Linux has lessened since the original list was compiled back in 2003. There is still a residual effect, however, as some IT managers continue to associate the stigma of "do-it-yourself" with Linux. "A lot of these IT managers are coming from a workplace that started in the late 1980s and early '90s, and they are simply not used to finding support for a Linux system." If IT managers are still found to be unfamiliar with the due diligence of working with Linux, Green recommends that ISVs and VARs put some serious effort into writing documentation and stressing the symbiotic support relationship between user, vendor and community. "VARs need to start coaxing and transitioning users to the idea of being open to the ideas of Linux forums and seeking out their own advantages," Green said.

    As Novell's Cutler said, those IT shops bent on leaving the "dirty work" of Linux support to someone else can hire on a dedicated engineer for one-to-one support or take a basic level of support and share an engineer with up to six other customers. "A big change with Linux support over the years has been bringing the real open source geeks into the realm of enterprise-level support," Cutler said. "The open source mentality is to stay on the latest revisions and if it was compiled yesterday then deploy it today. Commercial Linux vendors have had to modify some of those behaviors to support each major revision and service pack."

  5. Evolution of the Linux consultant

    That was then… Unless you have an in-house Linux/OSS guru, free support options may not meet all your needs, said Segeberg. Figure out how quickly you need to fix problems in mission-critical services. If you want a responsiveness guarantee of minutes, not hours, hire an on-call consultant.

    This is now… Today, many Linux consultants that in the absence of commercial support used to offer support services now make their livings by completing projects like Windows-to-Linux migrations. This is a markedly different approach from earlier in the decade, when consultants were often the main support mechanism for data centers using Linux.

    A typical project, Green said, can range from $4,000 to $5,000. "I prefer to charge by the project. After speaking with the potential client, I do what any consultant does. I factor in how long the project will take to develop and execute, add in expenses, justify everything in detail, and set a proposal," he said.

    Other consultants, like Indianapolis-based FileEngine, now give users turnkey Linux servers that come complete with a service contract. Then there are consultancies like Boston-based Optaros Inc., which makes a business out of supporting large packages of open source software running on Linux. Optaros vice president of marketing Mark Osofsky said today's consultants typically charge customers using the same three-tiered system offered by Red Hat and Novell.

    "This [tiered system] tends to be what a lot of enterprise customers are most comfortable with," SourceLabs Inc.'s Byron Sebastian said. "Today, customers are beginning to look for vendors who can supply that and the tools that enable them to avoid issues before they happen."

    Still others offer a sort of Linux "Geek Squad," Green said, although, in his experience, those outfits tend to be "a dime a dozen and usually have short life spans." Green also cautioned that these groups are typically for smaller IT shops without complex support requirements.

    Regardless of your approach, Green said IT managers should vet their consultant thoroughly. (see Noah Broadwater's list of support criteria in this article's sidebar)."At the end of the day, the right questions and the right planning are rarely executed well. Many times, it's because they are relying entirely on the service provider that hosts the distro that is on their servers, an IT staff that may not be well versed on large migrations, or a larger consultant that tends to be a jack of all trades and master of none that's trying to make a buck off the OSS growth," he said.

    Have a question or a comment about this article? Email Jack Loftus, News Writer. You can also discuss the support issue and a range of other Linux topics at our blog, The Enterprise Linux Log.

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