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Linux/OSS support, part 2: Ten reasons to turn to open source support services

Free software support is usually just an e-mail or a mailing list away for the open-source community.

Can businesses rely on open-source software (OSS) support services? It all seems so nebulous. Why, most OSS support options do not include an 800-number! For anyone who's reading this while on hold for a 800-number support rep, that could be a plus. Others, however, may worry about turning to a disparate band of techies for help with enterprise systems.

Don't worry, said the IT pros interviewed recently for's series on Linux support. Part one of the series discussed the reasons why businesses worry about Linux/OSS support. In this, the second installment, IT managers and consultants describe why they use free OSS support options regularly.

Here are their top 10 reasons why OSS support can make IT shops happy.

1. Obviously, you do not have to pay for it, and -- without a contract binding you -- you can avoid vendor "lock in."

OSS support mailing lists and the services are usually free, as is access to many OSS support resources on the Internet. By contrast, with many proprietary software vendors, "you have to pay for everything, including searching the knowledge base," said technology consultant Peter Rescinti, who's worked for business application vendors, including PeopleSoft, for 12 years.

Proprietary knowledge is a core part of proprietary software packages, so users are essentially forced to call vendors' help desks, Rescinti said. To protect their proprietary knowledge, many vendors actually make it hard to find free information about their products. As a result, users get locked in to that vendor's support contract. They are "forced to pay to access the knowledge bases and other sources of proprietary information," he said.

How much can businesses save by using OSS and free support? Network administrator Martin Herweg reduced costs by as much as 90% for several schools in western Germany by running Linux Terminal Server-based systems, OSS, and using free support instead of using comparable Microsoft-based solutions. A small or medium-sized school just can't afford to pay for proprietary system support, he said.

2. You can buy Linux/OSS support, but you don't have to buy more than you need.

Any company that wants the security of having an on-call support specialist can hire a Linux/OSS consultant, said GNU-embedded systems expert Bill Gatliff. "These service providers are often the core developers of the project in question, which gives you tier-one support quality," he said. Using a consultant who is paid hourly, instead of paying for a support contract, "lets you stick to a budget," he added.

EKOS Research Associates Inc. hired a Linux consultant to set up Samba and boost security. "He spent one day, and his final charge was for one per-diem, with no 'network review' extras," said Ken Innes, chief information officer for EKOS, a communications/research firm in Ottawa, Ontario. He's pleased with the consultant's quality of work, too.

Innes believes there's "a rather different business model adhered to by open-source consultants versus the others." Open-source experts in his area work primarily for nonprofits and have "a more parsimonious attitude toward spending clients' money," he said.

3. You won't be left high and dry.

If there's an answer to your question, the open-source community will almost always help you find it, according to OSS support users.

"I have encountered many problems when setting up (OSS) systems, and I have never once had to give up because I could not find an answer to a problem," said Rescinti.

OSS support people will keep digging for answers because they are relentlessly curious and "interested," Rescinti said. Unlike help desk workers, they're not meeting a vendor's quotas or punching a time clock.

Finally, OSS support teams have deep benches. An OSS support specialist can "tap into resources from around the world, not just a few developers in a few offices from a single company," said Jim Glutting, president of Software Engineering Specialists Inc., in Canton, Mich.

4. Most answers are just a Google away.

Rescinti "cannot count the number of times" when he had problems that were resolved with a simple Google search. In an online search, he usually finds "someone with the exact same problem I had. This type of support is tremendous."

Gatliff prefers the Internet search to calling a proprietary vendor's support line. A quick search on Google, he said, "certainly beats playing the phone-menu game and then waiting on hold for 10 to 30 minutes, only to be directed to an FAQ or Web page with a possible solution that might resolve the issue."

5. Getting direct access to OSS developers is usually easy.

Several IT pros report that authors of the software in trouble answered their initial calls for help. Just try to get through to the author of a proprietary vendor's product with the first e-mail, they challenged.

Samba's development team answers calls for help from Karl Clapp, senior technical specialist for the health services division of Keane Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The developers offered more prompt and knowledgeable support than vendors' paid-support programs ever did, he said.

6. Linux/OSS mailing lists work incredibly well.

When Jan Wilson needs help, he turns to mailing lists. "I present my problem, what I have tried, and where I'm stuck," said Wilson, system administrator for Corozal Junior College in Corozal Town, Belize. He's rarely failed to get a response containing "excellent hints, or even many paragraphs of detailed instructions that fit your situation," he said.

Mailing lists are the first place consultant Jim Glutting checks when problem-solving. "I have had several questions or issues with some of this software and have had every one of the questions answered through specific mailing lists," he said.

Rescinti is on the LTSP mailing list, which puts him in contact with "very experienced people who help me set up my systems." Many times, mailing list correspondents have helped him avoid making errors. "Sort of like preventative medicine," he said.

7. The quality of OSS support gets high marks from those who use it.

Pati Moss was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of OSS support. "Stereotypically, I believed that since I was using freeware I would get little to no support," said Moss, a Unix systems administrator for First Consulting Group Inc., in Long Beach, Calif. All the technicians responding to her queries have had in-depth knowledge, she said.

In every instance, Capp has found that OSS support reps were truly experts in their technologies. By contrast, in about 50% of Capp's encounters with fee-based vendor support programs, he discovered that the support reps knew far less than he did about their employers' systems. "This can be very frustrating when working on a very complex issue concerning the operating system," he said.

Rescinti has come across quite a few vendors' support reps who "faked it." Because their job is to provide answers, he said, the reps "pretend" to have a solution. With open-source, that doesn't happen. Thanks to the very public nature of mailing lists, someone faking a response would get caught very quickly, he said.

8. Speedy responses are common.

Almost all complex Linux/OSS support queries are answered within 24 hours, IT pros said. Frequently, answers that can't be found with a simple Web search are provided by support teams and other users within hours.

A typical response came from Moss, who said: "It has not taken more than a day to get a response. In some cases, it has been a matter of just an hour or so."

9. Free support is available 24X7.

OSS projects are used and maintained by developers deployed worldwide, so support is available 24 hours a day, said Gatliff. One of his late night queries was answered at 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

10. Since the source code is available, the savvy IT pro will probably need less support for Linux/OSS than for proprietary software.

Herweg has needed more support for proprietary than Linux/OSS systems because of proprietary systems' "artificial license restrictions and less freely available documentation." For example, "you need to buy and enter keys to have more that two users on a Unix system," he said. Also, the cloning of hard disks is more complicated "because of well hidden 'system IDs' and an undocumented file system (NTFS)."

In the final analysis, being able to fix problems and find ways to do repairs yourself is the biggest advantage of using Linux and OSS, IT pros said.

With the source code available, an IT pro can track a problem down to the line of code and determine how to fix it, Rescinti said. There are fewer options for fixing-it-yourself with proprietary software. A user can never look at or change the code. With open-source code, you can look, change and tell your peers what you've done.


Read part 1 of this series: "Linux/OSS support, part one: Does free equal shoddy?"

Read part 3 of this series: "Linux/OSS support, part 3: A firsthand story" news exclusive: Does free equal shoddy?"

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