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