Like many IT managers nowadays, Darren Spruell and his IT team were asked to cut their company's IT costs to the bone. Within the past few years, they've moved a large portion of their company's infrastructure to Linux platforms and open source software (OSS). In addition to achieving the desired cuts in hardware, software and management costs, the move to Linux has delivered less expensive, high-quality system and software support.
"Support is one area, in particular, that OSS shines," said Spruell, a system administrator for Sento Corp., a customer relations management solution provider in American Fork, Utah.
Spruell shares his experiences with free OSS support in this article, part five of SearchEnterpriseLinux.com's series on that subject.
Today, Spruell and his IT group are "passionate" about the advantages and viability of Linux and OSS support. "Many times our 'worthless, free support' has come in so handy," said Spruell. "It's worlds ahead of any support that I have ever gotten from our commercial vendors."
As soon as Spruell's IT team began deploying open source software, they discovered that documentation was abundant. OSS projects' hierarchical support structure -- featuring Web site documents, mailing lists and some sort of bug-tracking -- is very easy to use, Spruell said.
When an OSS problem pops up, a user's path to support is clear-cut. The first step is to check out the project's Web-based documentation, which can be presented in FAQs, how-tos or online usage manuals. For Spruell, that first step is usually the only step needed. "I have found that around 80% of my questions or problems have ended here -- on the project's Web site, in its public, open documentation," he said.
Taking that first step with proprietary software usually led to frustration, Spruell said. Lack of documentation makes it hard to quickly find information about product features and usage.
If the first step in getting help for OSS products fails, Spruell turns to public mailing lists. Of the 20% of problems not resolved by consulting documentation, 18% are taken care of by consulting support mailing lists. Spruell subscribes to about 10 such lists.
On OSS mailing lists, "an experienced, talented and long-term user base, willingly giving of its time and effort, is available to lend expertise," he said. "Rather than a dedicated team of 40 support techs for a commercial product, you have at your disposal a diverse, worldwide collection of thousands of users." In many cases, he noted, the users providing support on mailing lists have contributed to the project itself through patches, bug submissions or customized configurations.
In Spruell's opinion, a proprietary software vendor's "closed group of often poorly trained techs frequently doesn't have the ability to provide the same answers that a varied actual user base can provide."
In fact, Spruell's attempts to get commercial support calls have often ended in frustration. "Besides the onerous fees and support contract costs, it has been my experience that truly helpful answers are hard to obtain," he said.
So, 98% of Spruell's Linux/OSS support issues are addressed by free Web-based documentation and mailing lists. What about the remaining 2%? In those cases, software bugs are usually the problem. Bugs can include a security vulnerability, a feature request that has not been implemented into the package, or a bug in the operation of the software.
To get relief from bugs, Spruell makes a submission, either through the mailing list, directly to the OSS author, or to the online bug-tracker established for the project. In most cases, the bug has been discovered by other users already and patches are available. In other cases, users from around the world usually jump on the case quickly and contribute a patch or modification to the project. If that patch is approved, it is posted online and/or quickly implemented in a future release. "Same-to-next-day editions are not uncommon," said Spruell.
With commercial products, however, Spruell has gotten tied up in "corporate red tape" when submitting bugs. Frequently, his team has had to wait for a fix to be implemented into a service pack or feature patch. Sometimes, they've waited for patches for months.
After dealing with free OSS support providers for a few years, Spruell's team has been impressed with their speed, accuracy, security-consciousness and bonhomie. Their confidence in OSS support has made it easy to choose OSS alternatives over commercial software. It's rare, he said, that they've chosen commercial software because contract support services are available.
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