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Editor's Note: Size Doesn't Matter

Jan 21, 2005, 23:30 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Amongst the news about SCO discovery (more code, less filling), Red Hat's upcoming Enterprise Linux 4 (a Valentines Day present), and whether or not OSDL is about ready to re-write the Linux kernel (they aren't), was the news that Mandrakesoft was instituting a new partner program in the United States.

To this, I will say non-parenthetically, it's about time!

Anyone who has tried to tackle the US operating system market has usually run smack into the Great Wall of Redmond, turned around, and gone home. That is, until Linux came along. By being free and open, Linux has managed to ride around the wall like the Maginot Line. This does not mean the battle has been won, mind you, but Linux has made a lot more progress than some other operating systems against Microsoft and UNIX.

To accomplish this, Linux has been flung onto every platform you can think of. Desktop? Got it. Server? You betcha. Supercomputer? Molest me not with that pocket calculator stuff.

We all know the technical prowess of Linux, and how well it can performs on various platforms. Oddly, though, from the commercial standpoint, Linux is not as diversely offered, especially in terms of customer base.

For instance, the Holy Grail for commercial Linux is the enterprise, that mystical behemoth that describes what I affectionately call the mongo-corporations, Definitions of the enterprise vary, but one constant remains throughout: enterprise companies have lots o' money and buy lots o' computers. So it is little wonder that Red Hat, Mandrakesoft, and Novell all covet the enterprise customers. There be the money, after all.

Another commercial outlet for Linux is the desktop. There, you have lots more potential customers, but each one is not going to contribute much to your bottom line, at least individually. So, while commercial desktop offerings have more flash and greater grass-roots appeal, not very many distros sell specifically to this market. Linspire and Xandros are two of the more successful desktop ventures, for those keeping score at home.

There are, of course, the commercial offerings on high-end clusters and supercomputers and low-end embedded space. Here lies the greatest diversity of Linux's commercial success. But these spaces are very specialized, and I want to focus on them at another time.

So, for "traditional" distros, we have two big targets: the enterprise and the desktop, with not much in between. Which is why I applaud the new partner program from Mandrakesoft that specifically targets the small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

In a nutshell, here's what the program is -about: Mandrakesoft is going to start working with smaller US IT consultancies who want to start providing Linux services to their customers. It seems that while many IT consultants in the US have some Linux skills to offer their clients, they may not have the wherewithall or knowledge to effectively market Linux. Or, perhaps the consultancy has little to no Linux skills at all. The Mandrakesoft partner program can help both kinds of firms.

According to Program Manager Maria Winslow, the partner program will offer documentation, marketing, and some training to program members to increase their Linux knowledge and marketing savvy. Members will then be able to effectively answer requests for Linux from their customers, or present Linux as a new solution to customers who need it but might not have considered Linux previously.

The beauty of this kind of program, Winslow explained, is that instead of trying to seek out and identify SMB customers on their own, Mandrakesoft's partnerships get the company connected to customers know to the IT consultants. In this way, both sides of the partnership win.

Along with materials for marketing, members of the program will be able to sell specialized software offerings, known as the Dedicated Server series, Winslow explained. Right now, that includes a file server and an e-mail gateway. Winslow stated that there are plans to add Web server and firewall products later. She also said that the company is considering offering these products as pre-installed boxes.

On the training side, Mandrakesoft has developed Linux Professional Institute-approved courseware that will be used by any partner that needs it. Thus far, Winslow said, they are not planning on any sort of certifications for partners.

This plan is an exciting one, because it addresses a market niche that I think has more potential than the enterprise or the personal desktop. Enterprises have big IT budgets, usually, so they have the luxury of shopping around for their products and services. On the opposite end, PC users don't typically think about the "Windows tax," because it's built into the price point.

But SMBs, who need more than the PC user and have a lot less money than the enterprise user, strongly need another OS alternative. SMBs don't have a lot of money to throw at IT solutions, and may often settle for less licenses or less support than they really need in order to make ends meet. (Or they may be *cough!* fudging some licenses. Which would be, er, wrong.) For them, Linux is an ideal solution, and I think it's high time a commercial distro went after this market.

Personally, I hope more Linux companies jump into this arena. Small to medium-sized businesses need to have all the IT power they can get, and any time Linux can be used that power will certainly grow.