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The Wide-Open Career Landscape of FOSS Tech Support

By Jack M. Germain
Jul 22, 2009 4:00 AM PT

The growing popularity of free open source software (FOSS) is a sure sign that consumers and software developers alike are becoming more disenchanted with costly proprietary products. However, the promise of free software can be tarnished when software packages need configuration help and that help proves hard to find. When users have to wade through dozens of forum messages seeking a solution, the FOSS philosophy can turn into a turn-off.

The Wide-Open Career Landscape of FOSS Tech Support

Especially for business users, the cost of tech support for free software and the various Linux distributions can become an issue that makes IT managers and CIOs reluctant to migrate from the Windows platform. Although the software is free, users should not expect the developers to absorb the cost of helping them to use it.

"Microsoft Vista was so bad that it helped the need for an alternative support channel. This opened doors for Linux. The economic crisis also helped generate a need for tech support for Linux and open source software," Joel Bomgar, cofounder and CEO of Bomgar, told LinuxInsider.

Open sources is a cheap way for businesses to meet budgetary goals, he noted. Bomgar developed a remote service platform for companies such as Novell to use for providing tech support for FOSS customers.

FOSS Support Costly

The marketplace for paid tech support for most open source software is relatively small. What may count more significantly is the market share of a particular software niche.

"The cost of tech support for free open source compared to proprietary software ends up being about the same. It's really more about the market share of the products -- how many people are using the tools," John Whaley, founder and Acting CTO at MokaFive, told LinuxInsider. His company developes and supports a Mac-PC-Linux environment management tool around virtualization.

A few market drivers suggest that the use of FOSS tools is on the upswing, but it still has a very small presence overall in the enterprise relative to the full landscape of software offerings, he explained.

Helping Hand

As desktop Linux distros go, Ubuntu has been moderately successful, according to Whaley. His use of "moderate" here means if there is a 10:1 ratio of Windows to Mac, there is probably another 10:1 ratio of Mac to Ubuntu.

"The release of Ubuntu and Dell's adoption of it helped the open source movement somewhat," agreed Nathan McNeill, cofounder and vice president of product strategy for Bomgar.

Also, Google's recent announcement about its development of a new Linux-based OS is generating new interest in supporting open source products. A company like Google could give FOSS a lot of clout and change the game in terms of the adoption of open source, though it will be gradual, Whaley said.

Career Outlook

As free software use grows in business, so will the demand for qualified tech help. The demand for open source support specialists is growing at a tremendous rate, according to Kim Weins, senior vice president of products and marketing at OpenLogic.

"Although the economy is putting pressure on companies to save money -- and that helps fuel more open source software usage -- we think that other aspects of open source software, including quality of the code and the fact that there isn't vendor lock-in, will keep open source software growing well after the economy recovers," Weins told LinuxInsider.

In fact, some specialized software markets are already seeing a shortage of available tech support.

"Based on the in-bound recommendation/referral requests we get, it appears that there is a widespread shortage of deep domain expertise in Lucene/Solr technology, specifically in performance/operational optimization area. In my earlier life, I experienced the same thing for Linux. Good ones are always in demand," Anil Uberoi, CMO at Lucid Imagination, told LinuxInsider.

Growing Field

Many large companies are actively using 100 or more open source software packages. As enterprise governance policies mature, enterprises are requiring professional SLA support, accordi

Some companies choose to hire internal experts in certain projects, but many choose commercial support vendors, such as OpenLogic. This allows enterprises to cover their tech support outlay in a less costly way to get the expertise they need without adding dedicated head count.

"Almost all of the market research reports suggest that the OSS growth over the past five years has been above industry averages," said Uberoi.

For certain software and application segments -- most notably the LAMP stack -- he has seen a similar growth in Lucene/Solr deployments in the enterprise search segment.

Skill Sets

Open source experts are in demand both within enterprises and in the support departments of commercial vendors, noted Weins. Familiarity and experience with open source software is a critical skill in both development and support functions.

Generally, those skill sets differ greatly between proprietary and open source software. Most applications include multiple open source components integrated with custom and proprietary code, so it is not sufficient for tech support workers to just understand one open source package, according to Weins.

"Open source support experts need to understand how various packages integrate with each other and work together. You don't provide support on just one package. You have to view it as a part of an integrated stack," she said.

Pay Rates Stable

Given the growing need for open source tech support pros, the gap in pay between proprietary and open source technicians is slight. Some companies are even rewarding the specialized skill open source support requires with a pay edge.

"There is virtually no difference in pay. We pay competitive salaries to our tech support engineers. As anything else, it is a factor of supply and demand," asserted Uberoi.

While agreeing that the pay scales are mostly the same, Weins posited that the open source support experts her company hires are in fact generally paid better than the average support person for a proprietary solution.

"This is because we expect more of them. They need to be familiar with multiple technologies and understand how they work together with proprietary software and custom software," she explained.

No Monkeying Around

Most consumers and office workers have had ample experience with phone support technicians reading from a screen to asses the symptoms and figure out successful solutions. That approach may work with the Windows platform, but open source software generally is not as conducive to such template repairs.

"From a support standpoint, you can't have monkeys doing the support calls. The different flavors of Linux require different support solutions. The various Linux distros and the open source software packages developed for them have dozens of ways to configure them," said McNeill.

It is next to impossible to troubleshoot Linux that way. Linux has too many variables, Bomgar agreed.

Newest Needs

McNeill sees a growing placement for Linux support -- and thus open source -- for back end operations, and Bomgar noted that a lot more traction for Linux is occurring. Both factors mean a need for more tech support.

"Interest in netbooks is generating levels of tech support that are like a signal sent when the navy fires a shot across another vessel's bow," said Bomgar. "Netbooks are so inexpensive that workers are buying them without IT's permission. They buy it and use it and then stuff needs fixing, but the workers have nowhere to go for tech support. IT has to support it but isn't familiar with open source."

Marketing departments seldom talk to support departments when a new product is rolled out. So consumers are stuck with products that lack support from the companies selling them, he explained.

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