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Free Help for Implementing FOSS in the Enterprise

Free Help for Implementing FOSS in the Enterprise

It used to be a given that free enterprise software came with a price tag for the technical support necessary to implement and maintain it. However, the FOSS community has expanded to the point that a vast array of free resources are available for help with just about any conceivable project or problem. Many companies are finding they don't have to purchase costly support contracts.

By Katherine Noyes
05/27/09 4:00 AM PT

There are clearly more reasons these days than ever before for companies to adopt free and open source software.

Adopting it they are, too -- in droves, it seems. How else could vendor Red Hat, for example, surpass all expectations with its most recent earnings report?

Yet the fact that Red Hat is doing well highlights the other part of the financial equation for many enterprises: support. While the price of the FOSS itself is clearly right, anyone who's ever implemented enterprise software -- whether free or proprietary -- knows that it's not something you can just plug in and then be done with it.

Red Hat and other vendors are certainly more than happy to help -- for a price -- but enterprises that choose to go it alone are never truly out in the cold. Following are pointers to just a few of the many places they can turn to for free support.

Existing Partners

"Wherever you see paid support, there's typically some parallel free support," Jay Lyman, an enterprise software analyst with the 451 Group, told LinuxInsider.

For example, traditional systems integrators and consultants are now increasingly involved in open source. If an enterprise is already a customer of a company like Unisys or Accenture, for example, chances are it can get some open source support and guidance at no extra cost, Lyman said.

Such support "might not seem free, but it might be included in services a company is already paying for," he explained. "People are saying, 'We're paying these guys; let's maximize what we're getting from them.' This is a trend we'll continue seeing, and there's no reason open source can't be part of that."

Synnex, a founding member of the Open Source Channel Alliance, and Sparxentare two other examples of companies that could offer such support, Lyman added.

Open Source Vendors

Then there are the open source vendors themselves. As evidenced by the formation of the Open Solutions Alliance a few years ago, many such vendors are increasingly interested in partnering and can be sources of free help as well, Lyman said.

"We always see that open source begets more open source," he explained. "If you're getting your [customer relationship management] and business intelligence via open source, you could go to your vendor of one of those and ask for advice" on another project.

"Those vendors want to send you to the right place -- not on a wild goose chase, because that would leave a bad taste in your mouth for open source in general," Lyman said.

The Community

Of course, ask any committed Linux aficionado where to get help, and you probably won't hear about vendors or consulting companies. Rather, you'll be directed to "the community" -- an amorphous collection of forges, forums, wikis and grassroots advice generated by contributors.

"Every open source application has its own community, however small," Martin Espinoza, a blogger on Slashdot, told LinuxInsider. "The official community Web sites, forums and mailing lists are usually the best resources to tap first."

Often, the developers themselves are available to answer technical questions via such resources, Espinoza explained. "Occasionally, it's even possible to reach them via IRC or a similar messaging network."

There are also Usenet newsgroups associated with some open source projects, he said.

'Everything Under the Sun'

"LinuxQuestions.org is a huge repository of knowledge about GNU/Linux," blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider by email. "Using Google with site: linuxquestions.org and 'specific error message' really works. There are millions of posts on that site and many thousands of contributors."

Other good sources are the forums and wikis dedicated to particular distros and articles on particular subjects, Pogson added.

"I recently used such an article about using Winbind to authenticate to AD -- it works," he explained. "It used to be that LQ had mostly help with newbie-type stuff, but there is everything under the sun now."

SourceForge.net is another place where help can often be found.

'More Intelligent' Forums

Indeed, community support has matured dramatically, along with open source software itself, the 451 Group's Lyman agreed.

"It used to be more difficult to track down the right answers," he said. Today, however, "the forums have gotten more intelligent, the technology itself has gotten better, and you no longer see forums with these long threads that are almost unreadable."

Of course, there are many different kinds of open source software. "You can't lump it all into one category and get the same answer for everything," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack cautioned.

"For anything Debian, I've often gone to #debian on Freenode, where I can speak to someone live," he told LinuxInsider. "Other projects have people there as well. For PHP, I go to php.net, where I can easily find all of the documentation I need."

'You Get More Adept'

Some applications "will have better support than others, and any business deploying software needs to make sure they have the level of support they need," Mack warned.

"If a company needs more help than can be provided by the mailing lists and discussion boards, it should expect to have to pay for that," he asserted. "In many cases, the open source support option will be cheaper than even the licenses the company would have paid for had they gone with one of the more traditional vendors."

A 90-day planning guide from InformationWeek can help companies map out their open source support needs.

In this endeavor, quantity can lead to quality. "The more free community support an enterprise IT staff uses, the better they get at it," Lyman noted. "You get more adept. It's almost a challenge for open source vendors, because they need to make the software easy to use -- but then why would an enterprise need to pay for support?"

That logic has apparently convinced increasing numbers of large enterprises to embrace the free, community versions of open source software.

"Huge companies do use the community versions; lots of people don't believe that, but the fact of the matter is they do," Lyman asserted.

'More Intermediate Steps'

In fact, recognizing the growing excellence of community support, some open source vendors have begun offering more flexible paid support options, noted Lyman.

"We're seeing more intermediate steps between the community and commercial versions," he explained. Starter editions, pay-as-you-go plans and per-incident support packages, for example, are increasingly common among companies like OpenLogic, GroundWork and others, he said.

"Red Hat has a successful model, but one of their challenges is the inflexibility of their subscription model -- it's often all or nothing," Lyman explained.

For other options, FindOpenSourceSupport.com lists a variety of companies and individuals around the world specializing in many different kinds of open source support.

'A Little Head-Banging'

It's clear, however, that many companies can and do meet their needs through the free options that already exist.

"There's no question that there are going to be difficulties and challenges," Lyman noted. "There's going to have to be a little head-banging to get better at it, but generally people are able to do that."

After a while, "it becomes a difference between calling people and tracking down answers, and just doing it yourself," he concluded. "I think people may be surprised at how much easier it gets."


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