Should you pay for support on all Linux servers in your data center?

Free Linux distributions are gaining popularity, but choosing whether to adopt paid or free Linux depends on your support staff's level of expertise and the workloads you expect the Linux distro will handle.

A few years ago, IDC began to post shipment numbers for non-paid (self-supporting) Linux subscriptions in its Linux shipment and revenue market numbers papers. Paid Linux distributions include Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, Oracle Enterprise Linux, Red Flag Linux Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Turbolinux Server and Ubuntu Linux Server. Non-paid distributions include CentOS, Debian, Fedora, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, OpenSUSE, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Ubuntu Server.

There are a number of questions around paid versus non-paid Linux. Should you pay for all your Linux instances? What are the benefits of paid Linux versus non-paid Linux? Why do some users pay for Linux and other users do not? Is subscription-sensitive use pricing coming? Which workloads are suitable for non-paid?

For paid Linux vendors such as Red Hat, the Linux binaries cannot be downloaded, but the Red Hat Enterprise Linux source code is available. If you buy a $349 subscription to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, then you get the binaries and basic support: install, configuration, bug fixing, security patches, etc.) If you want a "better" brand of support, you pay more money for your subscription. This is the same for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server from Novell.

On the other hand, you can download CentOS binaries for free. CentOS is essentially a compiled version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), but it doesn't offer Red Hat support.

The case for free or self-supported Linux

You may be one of those users who complains that support for paid Linux only covers kernel issues that cause system failure. If you find that non-kernel issues are not covered by your paid Linux support and you are doing support yourself, you should consider switching to a non-paid Linux such as CentOS for some of your workloads.

You should not implement non-paid Linux without a plan for support. How you plan for support often depends on the level of support staff that your company employs. Regardless, some companies want someone to call or be responsible if something breaks, even if they have Linux expertise in-house.

Companies that have their own support staff for Linux with sufficient technical expertise and/or companies that view licensing as a large problem often opt for self-support. They download the bug fixes and security patches, and their Linux experts do the support. They can do it less expensively and in a timelier manner than buying a subscription for every Linux system in their data centers. There are clearly a lot of self-supported Linux systems, because about 46% of deployed Linux is non-paid.

The case for paid Linux subscriptions

You are more likely to run business-critical workloads, such as data warehousing, OLTP, ERP and CRM, using paid subscriptions with 24/7 support with one- or two-hour response because outages would greatly disturb the operation of your company and your service to others. You generally get better compatibility, interoperability and application support with paid than non-paid distributions.

You should consider paid Linux as your systems become more complex, because you are likely to have issues that an in-house support staff cannot resolve. However, if you have appropriate support staff, non-paid Linux can be used for workloads that are not mission-critical. Non-paid Linux should especially be considered for high-volume, non-critical workoads, and for application/development.

Until recently, independent software vendors (ISVs) were attracted to paid subscriptions. But forays by ISVs into software appliances as a new way to deliver applications has led to significant use of non-paid Linux. ISVs do not have to pay commercial Linux vendors such as Novell and Red Hat for what they hope will be high-volume use of their software appliances, giving you lower prices on applications.

Pressing Linux vendors for purpose-sensitive pricing

There are some uses of Linux that should have different levels of support and pricing than for Linux used to run applications in production mode. This is sometimes referred to as purpose-sensitive pricing. IT managers should press the commercial Linux vendors for this type of pricing to lower costs. Commercial Linux vendors should pursue purpose-sensitive pricing to reduce the number of non-paid subscriptions.

So far, commercial Linux vendors have not bought into purpose-sensitive pricing. Novell and Red Hat have basic support subscriptions available at $349 per server. They believe that this satisfies the need for low-cost subscriptions such as those sought by test/development, and they argue that most enterprises do not pay list price for subscriptions anyway.

Self-supported Linux on the rise in down economy

Due to poor economic conditions in 2008 and 2009, many users have begun to use more and more non-paid Linux distributions. From 2007 to 2008, non-paid Linux shipment growth was more than four times that of paid Linux growth.

Over 20% of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server deployments are non-paid, and over 25% of Red Hat Enterprise Linux deployments are non-paid. Novell accounts for over 10% of the total non-paid Linux deployments, while Red Hat accounts for almost 30% of non-paid Linux deployments. Red Hat's share of the non-paid Linux shipments is larger than Novell's share of paid Linux shipments, making RHEL non-paid deployments a bigger issue for Red Hat than Novell. Ubuntu has a very small percent of the paid and non-paid Linux deployments, but its share of both is expected to grow over the next few years.

The issue is more than just some enterprises deciding to use non-paid Linux instead of paid Linux: At issue is the fact that some companies are violating their contracts with their commercial Linux vendors. For example, if you have paid Red Hat for RHEL subscriptions and deployed systems using these subscriptions, there is a clause in Red Hat's contracts that requires all of your Red Hat Enterprise Linux deployments to be paid subscriptions. Otherwise you are in violation of your contract with Red Hat. Some enterprises, however, use more Red Hat Enterprise Linux than they are paying for.

Over the next few years we will see more enterprises reconsidering the use of paid Linux across their data center, and workloads that are not mission-critical may be moved to non-paid Linux.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Claybrook is a marketing research analyst with over 30 years of experience in the computer industry, with the last 10 years in Linux and open source. From 1999 to 2004, Bill was Research Director, Linux and Open Source, at Aberdeen Group in Boston. He resigned his competitive analyst/Linux product marketing position at Novell in June 2009 after spending over four and a half years at the company. He is now President of New River Marketing Research in Concord, Mass. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

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