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Getting help with free software

What are your options?

By Dmitri Ragano

December  1998
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One of the biggest stumbling blocks for those looking into implementing free software, particularly in the corporate world, is customer service and tech support. But the recent rise in free software use has resulted in an increase in support services. SunWorld contributor Dmitri Ragano interviews free software support providers and sifts through recent, related announcements from Red Hat for insight into what you can typically expect from the free software help desk. (1,800 words)

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How many of us have long admired the ideals of open source programs but chosen to stay within the safe and comfortable confines of commercial software because we know that there, at least, we'll receive adequate customer support? Sure, many of us love the thought of loading Linux on the desktop, but what about figuring out how to support that video card?

These doubts and insecurities have kept many software users from acting on their bolder instincts when it comes to free software. But in the past year, tech support for this market has grown visibly.

The recent surge in popularity of Linux, Apache, and other titles has sparked a growing body of independent consultants and service companies, making free software more accessible and accountable. For a fee, you can now choose from a wide range of support contracts and customer service options as you navigate your free programs.

This increase in support service has the potential to open the world of free software to a whole new realm of users.

"The problem in open source software is not that the software was free, but that the support was free too," says Mike Carpenter, manager of the answer desk for Collective Technologies, a computer consultancy based in Austin, TX. "People were getting advice via newsgroups and e-mail. And when you do that, you don't know who is giving the advice and how competent they are. It could be some 13-year-old kid with no experience just sending you his opinion on your problem. So, for big companies and organizations there was nothing to fall back on if they got into trouble with their open source programs."

Carpenter says that has changed considerably, as more consultants offer free software support and more customers take them up on that offer. The recent hype around Linux has also been a major factor.

"We've seen a huge increase in companies turning to Linux, especially since Intel and Netscape announced their support of Red Hat. These companies are all over the spectrum, including Fortune 50 companies, hospitals, and high schools. And, of course, it was ISPs that got the ball rolling with Linux. We've had ISP clients using Linux for a long time. It's only recently that law firms and accountants also came on board."

Carpenter says his company, which is also a Microsoft support partner, tries to offer support that isn't vendor-specific and that includes both the commercial software and the open source worlds.

In the free software world, about half the customer requests received are about Linux, while the other half deal with other popular programs such as Apache and Samba. Collective Technologies has two different billing methods. Clients can pay on a $50-per-incident basis, which includes a one-hour maximum and additional billing per half-hour, or they can establish support contracts, by which they're entitled to a certain number (or block) of hours per period.

Carpenter adds that support contract customers aren't billed for unsolved problems. "If we spend two hours trying to fix something and we can't figure it out, we won't deduct those two hours from a client's support contract."

Behold the Red Hat army
Much of the momentum behind the growth of support services can be attributed directly to Red Hat Software Inc., of Research Triangle Park, NC. Until this year, Red Hat offered no customer support service with its popular Red Hat Linux operating system, which includes popular free programs such as the Apache Web server and Sendmail.

Then, in early 1998, the company formed a support partnership program with several dozen consulting companies in North America and Europe. These partner consulting companies act as support providers for Red Hat, receiving regular communication from the software company, including updates and solutions to technical problems. Red Hat and its support providers offer two basic contracts: Standard and Gold.

Red Hat's Standard contract is designed for users who already have technical expertise in Unix but need service specific to Red Hat Linux. This includes updates of new releases of Red Hat Linux and a bug-fix service through which consultants help customers stay up to date on bug fixes.

Those bugs
Red Hat doesn't guarantee any time frame in which a bug will be fixed. It does, however, ask customers to prioritize bugs according to urgency. Red Hat and its support providers promise that top priority bugs, those that have disrupted a mission-critical service or pose a security threat, will be acknowledged within one day. At that point, Red Hat will work on providing a bug fix as quickly as possible and keep the customer and the support provider informed of progress each working day.

It's important to note that Red Hat support covers not just the Linux operating system but all offerings in the Red Hat package, such as Apache, Sendmail, and innd.

For Linux customers who don't have Unix expertise, Red Hat offers the Gold support contract. This contract provides software updates and bug fix service, just like the Standard contract, but it also gives customers open-ended technical advice from support providers, backed by the technical staff at Red Hat. Gold contracts offer support on any matter related to the use of Red Hat Linux -- such as where to find configuration information, explanations of obscure configuration options, and advice on suitable software for customer needs.

Cost of free software support
The costs of Red Hat's Standard and Gold support contracts vary with each support provider. Advanced Integration Specialists Inc., for instance, a Flower Mound, TX-based company that offers support in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, charges $850 for a one-year Standard contract and $2,500 for a one-year Gold contract.

Lee Riviere, president of Advanced Integration Specialists, says he thinks the publicity around Linux has generated new interest in the operating system.

"I think Red Hat is giving Linux a little more legitimacy. More people who don't even know Unix are starting to try it," he said. As an example of a recent client, Riviere points to a local city government agency that recently came to him for advice on a Linux networking function called IP Masquerade, which allows computers that don't have assigned IP addresses to connect to the Internet through a Linux host.

"I have had few problems supporting Red Hat Linux so far. It is a really complete and reliable operating system. The biggest problem has been compatibility with video cards," said Riviere.


New support programs unveiled at Comdex
In addition to the Standard and Gold contracts, last month at Comdex Red Hat announced additional support programs targeted at the enterprise server market.

Red Hat's 5.2 Commercial Server Edition of the Linux operating system features a 90-day support package that gives the enterprise user 24-hour, 7-day-a-week customer support. Red Hat is also unveiling additional support packages available in 10- and 25-incident packs. Annual technical support subscriptions are also available, with the new Platinum service package, which covers unlimited incidents and offers around the clock availability.

Red Hat said call center support will begin in early January 1999.

Red Hat has also announced an authorized reseller program, which enables support partners to build enterprise accounts and business lines based on its software and support products. This will include specific programs for system builders focusing on building servers and systems for enterprises, bundled with support. It will also feature training and certification for installation and support of Red Hat products beginning in February 1999.

An old-timer: Cygnus Solutions
The recent popularity of Linux shouldn't give the impression that commercial support for free software is a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to Linux. In turn, it would also be misleading to portray customers of these support services as fledgling networks or technically inexperienced users. In fact, many of the biggest video game, data communications, and electronic design vendors rely on consultants that provide sophisticated support for free software.

One of the most prominent high-end consultants is Cygnus Solutions in Sunnyvale, CA. Founded in 1989, the company specializes in support of GNU tools and compilers for developers at companies such as Hitachi, Cisco Systems, Sega, and Mentor Graphics.

Cygnus Solutions is considered a leading authority on GNU C and C++ and includes many GNU contributors among its employees. According to Founder Michael Tiemann, the company also acts as a maintainer of GNU software, which is constantly being enhanced and modified by independent developers around the world.

By acting as a voluntary maintainer of GNU development, Cygnus continues to gather expertise and also gives customers early access to program improvements.

Cygnus charges $7,495 for a one-year contract to support a maximum of up to five developers. This is an average of $1,500 per developer, which Tiemann freely admits is well above typical customer support rates.

Mentor Graphics Corp., an electronic design automation vendor in Wilsonville, OR, has been using Cygnus for five years to provide customer support for GNU tools and C++ compilers.

"Before working with Mentor we did our own compiler support and wrote our own C++ compilers," says Mentor's Evelyn Mast. The company eventually decided it wanted to get out of compiler code and outsourced to Cygnus.

"The support, the quality of the compilers, and the response turnaround are all very good," says Mast.

When Mentor has a compiler problem, Mast says, the company does a quick, first-line analysis and then sends a problem report to a Cygnus consultant.

"We try not to solve the problem," says Mast. "We wanted to get out of the business of compiler code. When the problem is obvious we send a source patch."

Mentor's Jim Vernon adds that on a few occasions "we solve it ourselves and send them a fix."

Still, Cygnus's track record shows that many technically skilled, corporate customers are more than happy to pay the company to handle their GNU troubleshooting.

How can Cygnus charge this much and keep customers happy? Simple, claims Tiemann. By making sure that Cygnus offers product support that is exponentially better than what the customer would be able to provide internally.

"We recognize that our main competition is right there at the customer site -- most of our clients have excellent technical resources," says Tiemann. "So what we offer to do is support a target product two to four times as well as our customer would on their own. If you are spending $1 million supporting your (development tools) then you will spend $250,000 by outsourcing to us. That's the value proposition that we have to offer our customers."

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About the author
Dmitri Ragano is a freelance journalist and Japanese-English translator based in San Francisco, CA. He previously worked as a high-tech and business reporter for ASCII Corporation in Tokyo. Reach Dmitri at

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