% fortune -ae paul murphy

Linux Support: the market share killer

There are two seemingly very different classes of Linux support: home and business, but both lack for the same thing: emotional and decision support, not technical support.

For example, I got involved in an email exchange recently with the director of a government office in Ottawa whose IT troops maintain multiple racks of IBM Xeon servers running Red Hat Linux. In Canabucks (currently about $0.86 US) he's paying Red Hat about $120,000 a year in licensing, has contracted client side support from an out-sourcer, and has five of his IT staff committed full time to babysitting the applications, mostly trivial (from a complexity and load viewpoint), running on these machines. Now the out-sourcing contract is coming up for renewal in the next budget year, the hardware is almost three years old and overdue for replacement, his IT head is insistent that going back to Windows Servers will reduce costs and downtime, and he's feeling real pressure from above to fund a study on switching to Linux on an IBM mainframe.

So what should he do? I told him to go all Windows. Why? because the social and political support he needs to run Linux isn't there, his people are clueless, and the vendors - including his own IT staff - have their own agendas.

What makes him unsupported with all those people running around and a Red Hat licence for every one of his servers is that he has the right ideas, but can't implement them. He called to talk about Linux on the mainframe but what he spent his time on was consolidating Linux services, dropping the out-sourcer and the Red Hat licenses, and looking for opportunities to reduce both risk and cost on networking, data center operations, and the client end. All of that sounds good to me, but what he doesn't have is anyone to tell him that this is the right idea, anyone who can actually make it happen, anyone who can sell his bosses on it, or even anyone who genuinely wants his IT group to function efficiently in terms of user service -because those people don't see him as their boss: they see him as a cash register they know how to pry open.

He got into this a few years ago because an IBM consultant told him it was a good idea, his bosses approved of working with the particular IBM outsourcing partner pre-selected for him, and because he saw the appearance of gushing pro-Linux features in both the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Business Journal as reassuring proof of its political correctness.

Now he's got nowhere to go but backwards - mainly because he lacks the emotional and management support needed to expand beyond the beachhead created when he brought Linux in, like a square peg in a round hole, as a cheaper, more effective, substitute for one piece in a much larger organisational mosaic where it simply doesn't fit and therefore has to grow or die.

In a different form, that lack of decision support affects the home user in much the same way.

Consider, for example, some dear bloggie questions that I've invented here to illustrate the core home Linux support issue:

  1. Dear Bloggie: One of the techs at my last employer loaded Linux on my laptop. That was four years ago and the machine is getting pretty long in the tooth - it's a 400Mhz Dell Latitude with 128MB - and I'd like to replace it but none of the places I went to offer Linux pre-installed. I asked some people at work, but they seem to think Linux is oddball and told me they could upgrade the home XP edition a new Dell will come with to the pro version without cost. I like Linux, but what should I do?

  2. Dear Bloggie: I set up my apache web server software on Linux and it seems to work ok from another PC on my home network, but it isn't accessible from my office. I've asked my ISP for help, but they said they don't support home web servers. How can I get this to work?

  3. Dear Bloggie: I recently installed SuSe 9.3 on a 1.8Ghz HP machine with 256MB of memory. I originally selected GNOME but have since switched to KDE. Both seem to run in a kind of "burst mode" -visibly catching up to the mouse after I finish moving it. Did I do something wrong, or is this the best Linux can do?

  4. Dear Bloggie: I can't get my DVD player to work on my Linux machine. I've asked the support people at work but they say Linux doesn't fully support multimedia. Is this true? and, if not, how do I make it work?

  5. Dear Bloggie: Every time I start OpenOffice on a document from work, the color used to highlight the changes I make in the document changes. Today it's a sick mustard yellow, last week it was something I can only call "fusive" -is there a way I can set it to just be red all the time?

So what do these imaginary people have in common with lots of real people? They're about to be turned off on Linux because they can't get a simple answer to a simple question.

So how do we fix that? Local entrepreneurial support. Nothing else will do.

The bottom line is simple: whether for home use or business use, the Linux community either extends the notion of support to include decision makers and gets it under control, or abandons Joe average to the mercy of his local PC shop or other IT shark.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specialising in Unix and Unix-related management issues.