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Linux/OSS support, part 1: Does free equal shoddy?

In part one of a series on Linux and open-source support, experts and enterprise Linux users delve into the reasons why enterprises may be leery of free IT support.

For eight years, John H. Terpstra has provided free technical support to Samba users almost every day. Often, Terpstra -- cofounder of the Samba Team -- answers users' queries for as much six hours a day. From 1996 to 1999, Terpstra and his Samba Team cohorts handled 30,000 inquiries.

Such generosity seems suspect in our capitalist society. What's the catch? Well, there is no catch, Terpstra said. Free support for Linux and open-source software (OSS) is available and, with rare exceptions, excellent.

In this series of articles, takes a look at free support options for Linux and OSS. This article will delve into the reasons why corporations are leery of free support. Following stories will cover the pros and cons of Linux/OSS support as well as step-by-step guides to getting support.

Businesses doubt that Linux/OSS support exists, "because they can't 'see' it," said Andrew Bartlett, network administrator for Hawker College in Hawker, Australia. He serves as Samba Team's manager of authentication subsystems. "They doubt it because there isn't an physical address, the 'bricks and mortar' that they have become accustomed to seeing from some of the other vendors."

In the past, many businesses have used lack of support as a reason not to use Linux and OSS, according to the IT pros interviewed for this series. Those who use Linux and OSS often pay for support from vendors or service providers like IBM Corp. and Linuxcare Inc. because they think that free support equals low-quality support.

Getting something for nothing is just unheard of in business. "I think some businesses feel that, unless they are paying for support, they will not receive what they need," said Tad Walker, formerly a university network manager.

Because the OSS movement does not emphasize payment, they don't think it offers quality products and services, Bartlett said.

The issue of responsibility is even more important than the perception that free service is shoddy service.

"Both Linux and the open-source support model are essentially public domain freeware," said Karl Clapp, senior technical specialist for the health services division of Keane Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "In today's business environment, this implies a lack of 'legal' (i.e., contractual) responsibility on behalf of the developers to support their product."

If providers of a free support service bear no legal responsibility for their support of a product, then a business using that product could be left in the lurch. Executives imagine worst-case scenarios, in which there is little or no support from the OSS developer, Clapp said. "In many instances, the IT staff within a company does not have the training or experience to handle technical issues that may arise concerning these products," he explained.

Businesses still believe, erroneously, that all OSS is developed and maintained by volunteers and hobbyists, according to John L. Ries, an IT pro for San Diego-based Salford Systems. "It is therefore felt that companies selling proprietary software are more professional and reliable than producers of free software," he said.

Ries has been using open-source software since 1994, starting on commercial Unix. In his experience, the people offering tech support for OSS are usually the software's developers. "Tech support for open-source software is easy to find," he said. "In most cases, the documentation will say something about how to contact the developers or otherwise obtain tech support." To get to that level of expertise at vendors' support organizations, IT pros told us, users usually have to go through a maze of lower-echelon help desk reps.

System administrator Jan Wilson is amazed at "how many experts, who would normally charge more than $100 per hour for their consulting work," will provide free Linux/OSS support via e-mail. "They do it as their own kind of community service and to help establish themselves as international experts," he said.

Aha! There's the catch, one might say. These do-gooders could really be consultants who use Linux/OSS support message boards to prospect for customers. To a certain extent, that is true. However, the majority of support given is given for no cost, according to Terpstra, who is an IT consultant himself.

"If a situation gets too complex, then we tend to refer the person to one of the paid support providers," Terpstra said. "Over the past seven years or so, I have gained about five paid consulting gigs from users who needed help and were willing to pay for it."

The fact that IT consultants are manning the free Linux/OSS support "lines" needs to be touted in the business world, IT pros said. The bottom line, said Clapp, is that corporate decision makers need to be swayed, if free support is going to be used widely by businesses.

Right now, Clapp and other pro-OSS IT pros find that their companies' decision makers are not convinced that Linux/OSS support will work in enterprise settings. A top decision maker in Clapp's company "has sworn off Linux as a supported platform for our product line." The word from the top is that the executive believes that "you get what you pay for." He lacks confidence not only in support, but also in OSS product performance, Clapp said.

Bartlett agrees that building awareness with corporate executives is critical to the acceptance of the OSS support model. In most cases, these decision makers are not the ones implementing, managing or using software. "Those actually using the software are much more aware of what is and isn't out there," Bartlett said.


Read part 2 of this series: "Linux/OSS support, part 2: Ten reasons to turn to open source support services"

Read part 3 of this series: "Linux/OSS support, part 3: A firsthand story" news exclusive: "Oracle lends support to UnitedLinux" news exclusive: "HP to support Red Hat enterprise line"

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