Watch your step - support options for Free and Open Source Software

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Many CIOs will be taking a close look at their budgets at the moment, to see where savings can be made, in light of the downturn in the global economy. Inevitably, they will stumble across GNU/Linux, if they have not done so already. One of the most attractive aspects of basing the IT needs of an enterprise on GNU/Linux is that the relevant software licenses do not require that licensing fees be paid. Additionally, the particularly strong support for open standards by commercial vendors of GNU/Linux as well as by the FLOSS community as a whole means that adopting a GNU/Linux environment will mean keeping business data “future safe” and free from “vendor lock-in”. However, the discerning CIO will also be fully aware that with the benefit of not having to pay license fees in order to use the software, comes the fact that there is also no formal support available, should something go wrong. Thus, the cost-aware CIO will definitely need to consider how his/her enterprise can utilize the benefits of GNU/Linux, without compromising on integrity, by ensuring that implementation is adequately supported. Depending on the size and type of the business seeking to deploy a GNU/Linux based IT environment, the choice of support will more than likely fall into one of the three categories of internally provided support, support through a local consultancy or enterprise level support from a recognised GNU/Linux vendor.

For many enterprises, having the internal IT system administrators provide the infrastructural support for a GNU/Linux environment may seem like the most suitable method. Indeed, this method entails having close control over the people providing support as well as over the prioritizing of all aspects of the support being provided. The considerable body of knowledge and experience built up by the IT administration can be leveraged to the benefit of the stability and integrity of the internal IT environment as a whole.

Of course, there are downsides to this approach. Whereas knowledge accumulation within the enterprise is definitely an advantage, the downside is that this built-up knowledge can leave the organisation, should members of internal IT staff leave the company. Should the accumulated knowledge be specialist knowledge, focussed on a unique IT infrastructure, the departure of the IT support engineer  may create an even more significant hole in IT support. Depending on the size and breadth of the enterprise, tasking internal IT system administrators to provide full support for a IT infrastructure may cause problems, due to vacation planning and weekend/non-core time. Another aspect to consider is the amount of time which would be reasonable to expect internal IT staff to actually work on system problems. Having a full-time internal IT staff wait for problems to materialise can be costly – like having fire-fighters live in a house lest a fire breaks out. Thus, cost is a factor which will probably play the greatest role in deciding how to provide IT support. Linux Foundation COO, Dan Kohn said: "When in-house self-help consumes more effort than a company wants its workers to spend, it is time to get real help".

If tasking internal resources to provide full support for a GNU/Linux based enterprise IT environment is not an option, it may be possible to look to regional IT consultants to provide support. Again, depending on the size, type and breadth of the organisation, chances are that a competent, local consultancy could provide exactly the type of support required. Such consultants often focus on one particular GNU/Linux distribution and have acquired considerable expertise and experience with dealing with the upstream community behind the distribution. These factors, along with rapid response times and familiarity with the organisation are certainly advantages to be considered. As with any other business decision, it will be necessary to acquire information about the local provider before pursuing a business relationship. What is the nature and extent of the local provider's presence? Is the provider likely to survive in the current economic climate? Is the provider likely to be able to provide the organisation with a hardened and tested product? Has the compatibility of critical business applications been tested with the product being offered by the local provider? What is the certification status of  mission-critical applications on the platform being considered?

An increasing number of organisations seeking to take advantage of the cost and stability benefits offered by GNU/Linux environments are choosing to opt for enterprise level support from one of the major GNU/Linux vendors, over internally provided support and over regional support. A logical reason for this is that enterprise GNU/Linux distributors have invested considerable resources in developing that actual GNU/Linux distribution itself and are in a better position to provide support for it. The engineers who developed and strengthened the software generally work closely with the upstream communities who initially wrote the code. Thus, issues arising during testing and deployment are caught and fixed before they have the opportunity to disrupt enterprise IT environments. In addition to having access to vast product related expertise, an enterprise GNU/Linux vendor will be able to provide an organisation with round-the-clock support, disaster recovery as well as high class update and maintenance channels. Furthermore, enterprise class GNU/Linux vendors should (and do) participate in ISV certification programs which are of huge benefit to customers and potential customers. Being able to determine the extent to which a particular business application is compatible with a particular underlying operating system definitely eases the process of software procurement. These benefits do, of course, come with a price. Depending on the nature of the organisation seeking support, the price may or may not be proportional to the support requirements at issue.

By way of summary, it is of utmost importance to stress that, irrespective of the method chosen to implement a GNU/Linux based IT infrastructure, it is absolutely critical to factor in the cost of support. The GNU/Linux distributions available are of a high quality and are to be respected as such. Nevertheless, a diligent implementer of a GNU/Linux enterprise IT environment will not want to be left out in the rain, if and when a problem arises.