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Linux on a Fast-Food Diet

Aug 23, 2005, 23:30 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brandioch Conner)

By Brandioch Conner

Instead of the traditional car analogy, how about a restaurant analogy?

Consider McDonald's.

At one end, you have yourself. You go to the market and get the basic ingredients, mix them yourself, cook them yourself in your own oven, and eat them yourself. This is equivalent to downloading an Open/Free distribution and sorting out what you want and making it work the way you want. Most of you have done this (I'm not counting desktops, yet).

At the other end, you have the five-star restaurant. Everything is handled for you, for a price. This is the equivalent of deploying Oracle or such. A few of you have done this.

But what about the middle? Where's the "McDonald's" model? By that, I mean a limited selection prepared in a limited number of variations but delivered to you quickly and inexpensively. Sure, a meal at McDonald's might not cost a tenth as much as a meal at a five-star restaurant, but McDonald's (the corporation) makes billions of dollars a year, and they're everywhere.

Linux-based companies will never see the same profit margins as Microsoft. They're supposed to be making all their money on "service" and "support" and "customization." So, what about the contractors? They'd be the ones doing the deployments and providing the support in the "McDonald's" model.

Here is my breakdown of the various roles possible in a deployment situation.

  1. Vendor/Salesperson (example: Red Hat/Red Hat salesperson)
  2. Corporate executive (CxO or owner)
  3. Tech/admin/contractor/consultant (on staff or contract, maybe not even on site)
  4. End users

There are a lot of small companies that don't have an IT person on staff. These are the perfect organizations for basic Linux services, as long as they're inexpensive, reliable and extensionable. All it takes is looking at the roles (vendor/exec/consultant/users) and determining their objectives and then fitting a service to them at a price point they're happy with. Sell them the service and support, don't sell them "Linux."

For example, Groundwork has a really nice product and it's Open Source. But why aren't we seeing Red Hat or Novell offering very basic monitoring functionality for $10/month per 10 servers? Novell could setup the monitoring system at their site. This would have to be scalable to handle lots of small companies otherwise it won't turn a profit. The contractor would then sell the service of an old PC running the monitoring software and reporting to Novell's system every minute or so (a stable Internet connection would be needed). Novell's software would, automatically, call the cell phone of the contractor and one other person (perhaps the business owner) when a problem was detected (hard drive space, tape backup failed, etc).

The business owner is happy because his systems are being monitored and the contractor is happy because he gets billable hours and Novell is happy because they get $10/month/site for doing almost nothing. Like I said, this isn't Microsoft-level profits, but it gets Novell some market share and it gets them inside businesses that they would not have gotten into otherwise. Roles involved: vendor, consultant, exec.

How about a completely different example, but along the same lines. A vendor should have and maintain a database of contractors and their area of operations and expertise. This is useful for when a potential customer calls. Novell has the platinum/gold/silver/etc resellers in their database. Now, include a section of "charitable" options (hours available per week/month and categories such as "church" or "political" or whatever). A lot of charity work is tax deductible. Why shouldn't the vendor be nice and match a non-profit organization with a consultant looking for some deductible hours? Again, this is about market share, not massive profits. But it does get the vendor's name known and liked. Roles involved: vendor, consultant, exec (of the non-profit).

A third example: slowing down the competition. There are still lots of Exchange 5.5 servers out there, not to mention all those small companies using MSN or AOL for "company" email. Why not help them out while saving them the time/money of upgrading to the latest version of Exchange?

  1. The vendor packages a "smart host" system and the contractor deploys it to handle the spam/viruses/etc for the Exchange 5.5 box. It should be all Free/Open software so there shouldn't be any charge for the software.
  2. The vendor provides a smart host outsourcing service (#1, except no new hardware/software at the client's site). This way, the vendor gets a monthly payment.
  3. The same as #2, but the Exchange server's data (not the box or the software) is absorbed by the vendor and the clients connect remotely.

Again, the idea is to provide functionality and stability to the client for as low a cost as possible. Throw in as many extras as possible, without increasing the cost. Then hand off as much of the customization to the contractor as possible. Roles involved: vendor, consultant, exec.

Right now, Linux is growing from the world-wide vendor selling to the large companies and from the individual techs deploying individual solutions for individual companies. Why not combine the vendor's world-wide scale with the contractor's regional experience to sell services to the small companies? It would require a different form of partnership between the contractors and the vendor, but both roles (and the client) would benefit from it.