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Choose Your Linux and Open Source Partner Carefully

Feb 20, 2008, 23:30 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Peter Dawes-Huish)

[ Thanks to Peter Dawes-Huish for this article. ]

More than any other technology before, the Open Source and Linux world is one where the choice of systems integrator to implement your solution is a difficult one to get right.

The Linux world is one that has traditionally been ignored by the larger systems integrators because of its slow organic growth and the niche has largely been filled by two man bands dreaming of making their fortunes and enjoying their moment in the spotlight. Neither of these scenarios has contributed much to the success of Linux in the enterprise. The market has therefore predominantly been shaped by mid-sized organisations that could develop their own infrastructure, using their ex-UNIX in-house skills to replace ageing UNIX kit with commodity PCs running Linux.

But this has made choosing the right Linux and Open Source partner for your organisation's needs a real challenge--let's take a look at the some of the options open to you.

The Software Vendor

If you want the most informed partner then surely the people who provide the software are going to be the best and most knowledgeable, right?

Well in most circumstances that is of course correct, however in the Linux and Open Source world one must remember that lots of the software included on the CD's from the vendors or "manufacturers" (e.g., Red Hat or Novell), itself comes from other sources--that's in the nature of the Open Source beast. So no, they may not be particularly well informed on all elements of the software they ship.

Also remember that software development requires a different approach to that adopted by solutions delivery and ongoing support teams. If you have a problem the answer from the developer normally revolves around "fixing it in the next version" of their product. However a solutions provider can use his independence from a manufacture to choose the correct software component from any source to meet their customer's requirements.

As far as support and maintenance are concerned many customer organisations will trust the software manufacturer for software updates, but then look elsewhere for their support. More often than not the vendor's support model is a very top heavy and expensive insurance scheme that experience shows seldom delivers.

The Systems Integrators

Systems Integrator is a very broad term covering everything from hardware partners to true systems consultancies and integrators such as Dimension Data or Logica. True systems integrators recognise the value of competencies in each of the disciplines required to execute a successful project. The successful ones tend to be up-front about their skills and clear where they require the use of third party experts. To that end the most important element of the solution that a systems integrator can provide is a professional project manager.

If you can afford it and this is a large project then this is the route for you. You pass some of the risk of failure to the project manager and let him orchestrate the components. Some of these organisations have access to have a huge library of information gleaned from years of project implementation and the appropriate procedures to reduce the risk of failure. Each project team is often made up of experts in their field, because the size of the organisation allows them to consolidate business and projects, with functions split out for each expert.

The Hardware Partners

Another type of integrator is the hardware partner--mainly HP and IBM. They have recognised that with shrinking margins they need to offer some value added services or die. Their wish to include some level of customer service, combined with the relatively slow take up of Linux in the past, has meant that in reality their internal investment typically amounts to just one or two locally based people with a limited knowledge of Linux--although both HP and IBM have offshore centres of excellence.

The hardware partners and other similar types of integrators cannot consistently generate enough Linux project business to employ dedicated local experts--indeed BT use generalists. In this case your "Linux engineer" is probably also the engineer for lots of other products that the integrator carries.

An added complication is that as Linux is open source system, Red Hat and Novell make extensive use of non-commercial software components, so some of those traditional and proprietary skills are not so easily transferable--although there is a thriving online mutual help community--something which is in sharp contrast to the more traditional corporate computing environment.

If you have a simple implementation with the main investment into hardware then this is probably the right partner for you. But if your project includes any level of complexity, such as setting up a SAN, Oracle solution, clustering or blade systems, then either ask them to engage with an expert third party company who really understands Linux in this environment, or be prepared for a lot of trial with error and potential failure.

There are stories of customers who have bought large scale IBM blade implementations to run clustered Red Hat and Novell/SUSE solutions who have found that neither IBM nor any of their top-tier partners could make their systems work--so be careful in your choice of partner.

The Mid-Tier Support Specialists

Each country appears to have one or more mid-tier specialists that provide specialised and expert support around Linux. These are normally open source advocates and business consultants who offer good independent advice based on their customer's needs rather than being tied to, or evangelising, a particular technology or solution.

The Linux server world is still a specialised area and these companies have had to define their extra value proposition more clearly than the software vendors or system integrators. Additionally they will have the skills and experience to integrate your Linux solution with your other existing IT systems.

The mid-tier specialists focus on support and consultancy for Linux systems. Their target audience and where they can deliver most value to the customer is those organisations with 50-250 servers running Linux. At this level most organisations are experiencing difficulties of managing the basic operations including updates, patching as well as the challenges of meeting business critical uptime reliability.

Their support offerings can range from the break/fix to a fully managed service model. Linux is moving into the mainstream but the traditional support mechanisms from software vendors and hardware partners have often been found to be lacking. A local presence with the option of a partnership model, based upon shared goals, can be met with real Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and on-site assistance when required.

The model of problem ownership and resolution of problems related to the complex interaction of hardware, software and operating system are best met by these organisations.

The Open Source Evangelists

There are many open source evangelists who buy into the idea of the faintly anarchistic position of Linux. These organisations typically have less than 10 employees and yet profess to offer all kinds of services from 24 hour support (man on mobile phone) to consultancy (read engineering). These organisations are often very active in the public sector and academic world. Open source advocates ignore most of the real world and live in the world of delivering basic IT infrastructure which these days are often just services on systems such as DNS or DHCP.

If you are a small organisation with 1-2 servers this is probably the right company for you. They will appreciate your small budget and be able to tailor an open source alternative to Microsoft at a fraction of the price. You are paying for their expertise not for software but this simple setup can be brought to you at a price.

Our experience is that once past the 1 to 2 servers then the solutions are unreliable and not resilient. The relationship becomes strained when your systems are either a test bed for the "gurus" latest interest in an open source project or he doesn't understand that the systems crashing twice a day is more than a mere inconvenience to you.

This is simply because these guys are often not as good as they think they are. They live a troglodyte existence working with other open source gurus, because they believe that contact with proprietary software will taint them. They have a tendency towards arrogance--they are experts and know best, but do not be afraid to challenge them and don't be baffled by the techno BS. If they cannot talk to you in plain simple business terms, then don't work with them.

How to Spot an Open Source Evangelist

Look for extensive reference to "Open Source" on their website, also see if they are involved with community project interaction. Also look for "faux" press releases, such as the delivery of a firewall or DNS server. The web site may look impressive and try to leverage big customer's names. But do ask if the customer that they reference from the Times top 100 bought anything other than a few days engineering or a DNS server. This is the equivalent of the newsagent that sells a box of matches a nurse putting up a sign saying "suppliers to the NHS." Of course you've got to smile but probably best to move on.

Typically they would be strong advocates for Linux projects with strange names that were coined to be amusing and lend very little to a commercial environment. An amusing example might be "Baboon-nix." Worse still if they lead the project or user group then steer clear, these will always provide advice to avoid "Microsoft the devil" and only use Baboon-nix even if it doesn't really work.

Conclusion

As ever, the best choice of Linux and Open Source partner for your organisation will depend on the size and complexity of your project, and the kind of relationship you are looking for. Each of the partner types has its place, but the ancient Roman saying of "buyer beware," still holds true today!

If you are a major corporate, with a skilled internal IT department or dedicated IT support contract then the software vendor's upgrades and support may be all that you need.

If your internal IT department are already overloaded, or have other priorities, and you have larger time or business critical projects, then the strength in depth offered by the larger systems integrators could be the lowest risk option.

If you are the sort of organisation that likes to "one stop shop" from the major hardware vendors, then you have already made your decision--just be prepared to demand the level of support you need and back it up with enforceable SLAs.

If you are a mid-sized organisation, or an independent part of a large one, looking for real expertise, and the ability to integrate your open source projects with your existing IT infrastructure, then go for the mid-tier specialist.

And finally, if you are a small organisation, or operate in a specialist niche, then find a good local small independent--just be careful it doesn't end up as more of an adventure than you'd have liked.

Peter Dawes-Huish is the CEO and Founder of LinuxIT Europe Ltd.

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