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Linux shops navigate the nuanced support landscape

Despite the evolution of Linux support and the undeniable success of the OS, lingering concerns prevent users from painting a totally rosy Linux support picture.

The world of Linux support has changed considerably since the days of Slackware and other early Linux

For more on Linux support:
The top Linux support weaknesses, then and now
distributions. In many ways, as the subscription-based models of Red Hat and Novell have proven, it's been for the better. Support has become more consistent and effective with these commercial models.

But easily accessible, affordable Linux support tailored to users' specific technology environments remains elusive. And those users who have found successful alternatives still warn that it's important to ensure a maximum return on your support investment. It pays -- literally -- to be aware of the subtle nuances and obstacles that remain, users say.

Linux, open source support nostalgia
Przemek Klosowski, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Linux users group, recalls the late-1980s support environment.

"I remember … back in the late '80s when one could call an IT vendor and get meaningful help, with escalation to actual implementers if necessary," Klosowski said. "That of course was possible because they were subsidized by the unit cost of each workstation, which was in the tens of thousands range -- and it was '80s dollars, too -- [which was] acceptable because each computer was amortized over many more users."

We sent [a support provider] a 2 a.m. call just to see if someone would pick up and if that person was someone we could have a technical conversation with.
Michael Porter,
CEOCentegix LLC

But Klosowski believes the good old days are long gone, and Linux support has evolved into something new. For one thing, Linux vendors simply don't have the revenue stream to subsidize good software support, among other things, he said.

"I don't think people are ready to pay subscription or per-hour charges," he said.

As a result, vendors came up with a way of "capturing troubleshooting knowledge, thanks to the practice of putting everything on the Internet (i.e., blogs, articles, archives of mailing lists)," he said.

That dynamic has created a support and services environment unique to open source operating systems and projects: today Linux support is more about creating and maintaining specialist knowledge than about one-to-one hand-holding, Klosowski said.

Klosowski said that he believes the latter should still be available to those who can afford it, but scalability basically dictates two support requirements:

  • systems have to improve (that is, become more reliable and maintainable); and
  • services have to become more automated.

"For example, there could be more automated failure reports, tied to database searches: Wouldn't it be nice to get an email saying 'Your FooGrabber app just failed, due to prefrobnicated appendix. Please change setting X and download new driver from'?" Klosowski said.

On a more basic level, Linux users have difficulty just finding the information they're looking for, said Conrad Knauer, an Ubuntu user based in Canada.

"Basically I will either do a generic Google search (and I find that I usually have much better luck as an Ubuntu user if I search for 'Ubuntu [problem]' than 'Linux [problem]') or go look on [www.]," Knauer said. With Ubuntu, the support challenge is not so much one of accessing the command line but of finding and installing the right package.

"Traditional" commercial support
Matthew Porter, CEO of Contegix LLC, an international managed Web hosting provider, currently has Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, 4 and 5 deployed in his St. Louis, Mo. data center. He's had few problems in his environment -- which is 100% Linux-based -- but that doesn't mean he forgoes a support checklist that Red Hat must continue to abide by to keep his business. To date, he has been satisfied with his Red Hat relationship, and he uses it as an example to gauge other vendors' support mettle.

More important, however, is how a vendor goes beyond simply picking up the phone and responding to customer needs, Porter said. So far, he said, Red Hat is doing just that.

Porter's multiyear relationship with Red Hat has involved only two or three support calls, he said, and each was handled well enough that the Raleigh, N.C.-based vendor retained his business. Red Hat understands that Contegix's needs as a Web hosting provider differ from those of other customers, and deals with them accordingly, said Porter.

"Anyone can get a system up and running, but it is another thing entirely to understand how the software works in a user's system. Anyone can be responsive, but not everyone can be responsive and understand the environment," he said. "There's a difference between knowing Apache runs on port 80 and understanding a customer has an issue with MySQL because their PHP implementation is using so many resources that we need to increase the connectivity level for MySQL."

Porter also appreciates Red Hat's new support philosophy. "I like the idea of what [Red Hat] has done with their SLA [service-level agreement] changes. It was really smart, and I think it is in line with the way we want to be treated as customers," Porter said. In March, when Red Hat released version 5 of its flagship Linux distribution, it also unveiled a streamlined one-page SLA. The previous agreement was a nine-page affair that Red Hat vice president of support Ian Gray called "legalese."

But for an example of an exemplary support organization, Porter points to BakBone Software Inc., a backup and recovery vendor based in San Diego that specializes in Unix and Linux systems.

"[Contegix] always has a support staff online at all times, and we answer tickets within five minutes with a dedicated engineer. BakBone understood that support mentality too: we sent them a 2 a.m. call just to see if someone would pick up and if that person was someone we could have a technical conversation with," Porter said.

Contegix's tactics may seem a bit sneaky, but that's exactly the level of commitment that Porter wants from any vendor promising support – Linux or otherwise. "When an organization like ours is built around support as the number one feature then your vendors must have that exact same mentality," he said.

The support spork?
As you consider your organization's support needs, it may be helpful to think metaphorically, said Russell Pavlicek, a senior Linux architect with data center automation and virtualization management vendor Cassatt Corp. Specifically, Pavlicek thinks of it as that school cafeteria staple: the Spork.

"Yes, I mean that rather low-brow utilitarian abomination of the culinary world, the spoon-fork hybrid, normally treated with such disdain that it is rarely cast in any material but the cheapest of plastics," Pavlicek said.

More seriously, Linux support has two prongs. The first is the ability to deliver an answer or resolution in an efficient manner in an agreeable length of time. The second is more subtle but also often more desirable: the ability to stand with the manager responsible for the system experiencing the problem. "This was the lesson I learned watching IBM," Pavlicek said. "Not the benign giant called IBM today, but the aggressive ogre that made competitors flee decades ago. That IBM didn't make money selling the best products; it made money selling the best support."

This is the definition of support that echoes within many large corporate IT environments today, Pavlicek said, but it is also the point at which most open source vendors are most lacking.

But what about the final piece of the Spork: the spoon? "The third part is the ability to scoop up the mess when all is said and done so that the incident is largely forgotten. It is the virtual cleaning crew which follows along behind the parade and whisks away the ugly refuse left behind the procession. This aspect of support makes sure that incident is put to rest and forgotten so that both the work and the careers of the workers can continue as before the problem," Pavlicek said.

But for Knauer, who doesn't pay for support, questions about Linux support turn on simple economics.

"The whole point of being in business is to make money. If it's cheaper to pay someone outside the company to provide the support rather than paying someone inside the company, then that makes business sense," he said. "Also, if I had some mission-critical problem that needed to be resolved immediately, like a server down with contractual obligations sitting on it due tomorrow, the cost of outside tech support could be well worth it."

Email Jack Loftus, News Writer, with your questions and comments on Linux support.

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