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LinuxWorld: Evangelist advises on preparing Linux pitch

In this interview, Novell Linux Business Office chairman Matt Asay explains how enterprise officers need to prepare before pitching Linux and open-source to decision makers.

If you don't know your stuff, don't go ahead and pitch Linux and open source software (OSS) to your "closed-source" IT shop and company. "You'd better know your facts and have experience in the OSS world," said Matt Asay, chairman of Novell's Linux Business Office & Open Source Review Board. "Gather data, both quantitative and qualitative." He's followed his own advice, serving as General Manager at Lineo, an embedded Linux software startup, as well as Novell. He also spent three years studying software licensing and innovation Stanford Law School, where he earned a doctorate.

Toppling ISVs' top five objections to Linux/OSS

Without independent software vendors on the Linux/open source software (OSS) crew, Linux on the enterprise is a ship without sails. IT professionals can help get ISVs get on board by making their desire for Linux/OSS products known. Of course, when they do, they'll run into opposition, according Matt Asay, chairman of Novell's Linux Business Office & Open Source Review Board.

To help Linux advocates hone their pitches, Asay offers these tips on how to counter the five most common objections to building software on Linux/OSS.

Objection No 1: How are we supposed to make money on free software?

Adding closed-source value to free/open-source value is the way to go, according to Asay. Leverage an exceptional body of free code and contribute significant value back. By doing this, the software company will gain a wider body of users to service and support.

Objection No. 2: But we'll contaminate our intellectual property!

Not necessarily, Assay said. The key is to "carefully manage the importation of OSS and exportation of OSS and closed-source software."

Objection No. 3: Our proprietary code is our primary advantage! How can we possibly sacrifice that?

There's no need to sacrifice it, but you'll lose ground in your marketplace if you don't recognize that the rules of the game are changing. "One's primary advantage today may be ephemeral/gone tomorrow," said Asay. "Holding a copyright or patent is not a license to mint money. Maybe that rang true in the past; it doesn't any longer." Today and in the future, "advantage and value must be delivered in other ways, further up the software stack," he added.

Objection No. 4: But that's not the way we develop products!

"Exactly," said Asay. "What can we learn from this new development model, while still maintaining the best practices we've followed in the past?"

Objection No. 5: How will this effect my job as an engineer?

This objection is frequently unspoken. So, Asay suggests that a Linux/OSS pitch should always address it. He advises software engineers to find ways to contribute to the open source community and to the company's open source solutions. That way, the engineer's job should not be in jeopardy. "Right now, we need people that can be active in both worlds," he said.

Asay offers his advice on preparing Linux pitches in this interview. Today, he also brings his message to LinuxWorld in a presentation titled "The Successful Transformation from a Non-Open Source Company into a Thriving Open Source Organization."

What are the ramifications on IT pros/shops of the operating system wars that are occurring now? Also, why are some IT pros so emotional about their 'chosen' operating systems (OSes)?

Asay: Change is difficult, and adoption of a new OS can be a particularly difficult change for an IT shop to make. Small wonder, then, that IT shops get "emotional" about their chosen OSes. It's comfortable. It's familiar. It (sometimes) works.

But Linux is pushing people to consider that change, regardless of the real or supposed pain. And with applications and services driving the need for adoption of a particular operating system, IT professionals will need to answer the greater question of 'What gives me the best TCO?' now and in the future.

What are the primary challenges facing an open source advocate working in a non-open source company?

Asay: Education is perhaps the biggest challenge. Most people who are non-open source supporters don't understand open source and its benefits. They have a hard time swallowing the idea that the company should be giving paychecks to people for developing code that can't be sold by the company. Open source demands a fundamental shift in closed-source companies' thinking. As an advocate, you can wear yourself out trying to beat this 'new reality' into their head, never really knowing for sure if it will pay off, because there are no proven business models for OSS.

Understanding legal implications is another major issue, but I've found that it diminishes in importance if the first challenge -- education on the business merits of OSS -- sinks in.

Could you describe the most important steps an OS advocate should take in preparing himself/herself to make a pitch for OSS? /p>

Asay: You'd better know your facts, and have experience in the OSS world (either as an engineer who actively contributes to a project or on the business side, figuring out how to monetize the involvement of others). While an OSS advocate must be a bit religious about OSS, it's more important that they're pragmatic about OSS. OSS is a means, not an end.

So, the OSS advocate should gather data, both quantitative and qualitative. Anecdotal evidence has a place here, especially when gleaned from hard experience. The OSS advocate also needs to understand the political layout of the company. All companies have politics -- understanding who the opinion leaders are can help the OSS advocate go directly to the opinion leaders to win them over, thereby bringing a large swathe of the company with them.

Lastly, the OSS advocate has to be relentless, because they're almost inevitably going to fail many times before the message sinks in.

In what circumstances is an IT environment ripe for an open source environment?

Asay: OSS offers greater flexibility to IT professionals. OSS allows IT pros to make software a working cog in the mechanics of the business, rather than something separate that acts independently of one's business. If software is treated as a means to reach an end, and not the company's 'secret sauce' in and of itself, then that company is ripe to deploy open source.

In what circumstance is an IT environment wrong for OSS?

Asay: I frankly don't know if there are any such IT environments; at least, none that can't be saved from themselves.

Still, OSS requires the right skill set to be able to fully take advantage of most OSS offerings. If an organization isn't one to build and develop, and instead simply buys canned products, then OSS might not be right for them. In my experience, the customers that are most successful in working with OSS always have a couple of really top-notch individuals that the company can count on to bail them out of trouble.

How can IT pros/shops weigh the pros and cons of OSes productively?

Asay: Several factors should be considered when choosing an operating system. The following are some items to consider:

  • Is the particular operation system going to be able to run the applications and services needed for my organization's business?
  • Is the particular operating system scalable enough to support the application and future growth?
  • Is the particular operating system stable enough to support the applications I need?
  • What resources are available for my IT staff to manage the operating system?
  • What resources are available to help develop applications?
  • What are the cost of services and applications for the operating system?
  • What is the cost of the operating system?
  • How much is it going to cost to migrate to a particular operating system?
  • Will I have needed support if I move a particular operating system into my enterprise?

Remember that getting the best TCO for an operating system is more than just the initial cost.

How is Novell fostering the adoption of open source software?

Asay: Novell has been active in OSS for many years; we just haven't chosen to make it the driving force behind our business until now. We have actively contributed to Apache, Tomcat, and other key OSS projects for several years. We have also embraced technologies such as Apache, MySQL, PHP and Perl on NetWare. We will continue embracing more of these technologies with our new offerings around Linux, and will continue to lead our peers in pushing the adoption of OSS. Just one example is our embracing of MySQL -- it will ship with every NetWare license we sell.

Novell has and will continue to contribute and help maintain OSS projects. We have also set up an OSS development site called Novell Forge, which is helping to promote OSS adoption with Novell technologies.

Why has Novell chosen to back OSS?

Asay: In many ways, it could be said that Novell had the most to lose from the rise of OSS. But we've turned that thinking on its head. Instead, we're positioned to profit the most from widespread OSS adoption. We've got the technology and the services necessary to take Linux and other open source technologies into every enterprise in the world, and it is our intention to do just that.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: coverage of LinuxWorld Ask the Experts news exclusive: "Making a pitch for OpenOffice"

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