Linux 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 enjoying their moment in the spotlight, writes Peter Dawes-Huish. Neither has contributed much to the success of Linux in the enterprise.
As a result, the market has predominantly been shaped by mid-sized organisations developing their own infrastructure, using 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 to implement a solution a real challenge.
If you want the most informed partner, then the people who provide the software are going to be the best and most knowledgeable, right?
Well, in most circumstances, yes, but in the Linux and open source world lots of the software included on the CDs from suppliers itself comes from other sources that's the nature of the open source beast. So software suppliers may not be particularly well informed on all elements of the software they ship.
Software development also 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 runs along the lines of "fixing it in the next version" of the product. However, a solutions provider can use its independence from a manufacturer to choose the correct software component from any source to meet its customer's requirements.
Many users will trust the software manufacturer for software updates but look elsewhere for support. Suppliers' support packages may also be top-heavy and expensive insurance schemes that seldom deliver.
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 upfront about their skills and clear about where they need 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, a systems integrator offers the best option for a large project. You pass some of the risk of failure to the project manager, who will orchestrate the components. Some organisations have access to have a huge library of information gleaned from years of project implementation. 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.
Another type of integrator is the hardware partner, mainly for HP and IBM hardware. With shrinking margins, hardware partners 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 their internal investment typically amounts to one or two locally based people with a limited knowledge of Linux, although both HP and IBM also have offshore centres of excellence.
Hardware partners cannot consistently generate enough Linux project business to employ dedicated local experts. 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 an 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.
If you have a simple implementation with the main investment into hardware, then a hardware partner is probably right for you. But if your project includes any level of complexity, such as setting up a San, an Oracle solution, clustering or blade systems, then either ask such a partner to engage with an expert third-party company that really understands Linux in this environment, or be prepared for a lot of trial, error and potential failure.
Mid-tier support specialists
Each country appears to have one or more mid-tier specialists that provide specialised and expert support around Linux. They are normally open source advocates and business consultants who offer independent advice based on a customer's needs rather than being tied to, or evangelising for, a particular technology or solution.
The Linux server world is still a specialised area and these companies have had to define their value proposition more clearly than software suppliers or system integrators. They will also have the skills and experience to integrate your Linux solution with your 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 to 250 servers running Linux. At this level most organisations experience difficulties in managing basic operations, including updates, patching and offering business-critical uptime reliability.
The specialists' support offerings range from break/fix to fully managed services. Linux is moving into the mainstream but the traditional support mechanisms from software suppliers and hardware partners have often been lacking. A local presence with the option of a partnership model, based on shared goals, can be met with real service level agreements and on-site assistance when required.
The ownership and resolution of problems related to the complex interaction of hardware, software and operating system are best met by these organisations.
Open source evangelists
Many open source evangelists buy into Linux's faintly anarchistic position. They typically have fewer than 10 employees and yet profess to offer all kinds of services from 24-hour support (a man on a mobile phone) to consultancy (read engineering). They 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, often just services on systems such as DNS or DHCP.
If you are a small organisation with one or two servers, this is probably right for you. An evangelist 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 more than a couple of servers to deal with and the solutions are unreliable and not resilient. The relationship becomes strained when your systems are either a testbed for the open source guru's latest interest or inability to understand that systems crashing twice a day is more than a mere inconvenience to you.
These guys live a troglodyte existence working with other open source gurus, because they believe that contact with proprietary software will taint them. Don't be afraid to challenge them and don't be baffled by the techno bull. If they cannot talk to you in simple business terms, then don't work with them.
How to spot an open source evangelist
Look for extensive reference to open source on the website, and if they are involved with community project interaction. The website may look impressive and try to leverage big customers' names, but ask if those Times Top 100 customers have bought anything other than a few days' engineering or a DNS server. It's the equivalent of a newsagent who sells a box of matches to a nurse putting up a sign saying "supplier to the NHS". You've got to smile but it's best to move on.
Typically, such organisations are strong advocates for Linux projects with strange names. If they actually lead the project or user group, steer clear: their advice will be to avoid the great Satan, Microsoft, and only use Baboon-nix even if it doesn't really work.
Who's for you?
The best choice of partner for your organisation will depend on the size and complexity of your project, and the kind of relationship you are looking for.
Major corporates with a skilled internal IT department or dedicated IT support contract may need no more than the software supplier's upgrades and support.
If your internal IT department is already overloaded, or has 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 your organisation likes a one-stop hardware shop, 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 CEO and founder of LinuxIT Europe