Reader's view: Proprietary support breeds lazy IT pros

Jameson C. Burt

Since 1993, Jameson C. Burt has used support options for both proprietary and open-source software. In this first-person narrative, Burt -- an IT professional in a federal agency -- explains why free open-source support won his favor, even though it has its flaws. He also offers tips for getting the most from open-source support. -- Jan Stafford, site editor,

With proprietary software, software kingdoms form where users cannot easily interoperate. Today, those offering proprietary support typically do not reveal solutions unless they receive payment. As a result, proprietary support often makes me dependent upon the correctness of one person. Additionally, only people paid at the proprietary support center contribute to possible solutions.

I have found that users of proprietary applications are not likely to offer possible solutions to issues with the software. The users of proprietary tools presume the software vendor should supply answers, and the users are darned if they will give a proprietary outfit any solutions that may be used for company profit. After all, the users' solutions might be removed, reserved for the proprietary vendor's exclusive use.

The user and proprietary vendor are at loggerheads. The vendor properly keeps information private for business reasons, while the user merely wants good solutions.

Take this example: After having bought Sun Microsystem's support services, I could peruse Sun's

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archive of solutions. This was a great boon, since I no longer needed to depend upon one person's correct answer.

However, in the open-source arena, this type of support resides in free e-mail archives. I eventually discovered that open-source archives, such as Usenet news archives, are far more extensive than proprietary vendors' documentation.

Indeed, by 1997, I came to prefer solving my Sun computer problems by using Linux e-mail archives. I found that Unix/Linux operating systems have so much in common that most solutions for one operating system, whether it's Linux or Unix, can be used to solve problems in another operating system. I would often type my Sun error message into a Debian Linux search engine and promptly get several possible solutions.

This applies to commercial support options for Linux, too. For example, I see far fewer contributions addressing problems in commercial Red Hat Linux and SUSE Linux than I see in Debian Linux and Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP).

Unlike dealings with the proprietary support hierarchy, a user's questions about an open-source project can reach product developers. For example, in 1996, former Debian/GNU Linux project leader Bruce Perens answered one of my questions.

Usually, I don't have to post a question, because I get most solutions from e-mail archives. And I usually find a solution within an hour. Because there are millions of computer users, my problems are seldom original and have almost always already been solved, with answers posted to some e-mail archive.

Proprietary solutions to problems are rarely acquired so cheaply, quickly and easily. Of course, there's the time spent mulling over the potential expense before relenting to pay for an answer. Frankly, I will think about a problem for days before deciding to pay for proprietary support. Then, there's the time spent explaining the problem.

Because of the profit motive, proprietary support reps are not impartial. Because of their limited knowledge, they don't offer a complete view of the possible solutions. They would, of course, recommend their own product or their partners' products, even though an open-source product would usually solve the problem better. They don't care about the hours a user of proprietary product would have to spend fiddling with licensing software, dealing with failures of licensing software when a CPU upgrade causes the license to fail, handling paperwork for licenses, and working around restrictions on which computers or operating systems can use the software.

Finally, some problems won't really be answered by proprietary support staff. For example, what answer would I expect from Sun if I asked, "What software should I use to create *.mp3 files?"

Laziness is a byproduct of IT shops' reliance on proprietary support. Where I work, we pay an enormous sum for AIX operating system support from IBM. Because a support call is easily made, our computer administrators rely on IBM and have largely ceased to learn. For example, I recently listened as one of our administrators was guided by an IBM proprietary support agent through the process of adding a new user. Each time this administrator adds a new user, he calls IBM. His eventual mindless reliance on IBM's paid support doesn't at all reflect his skill level; he spent several years C programming in Silicon Valley and even ran his own computer company.

Ten years ago, I called for paid technical support about twice a year. I have not needed paid technical support for the past five years. I've found that Linux e-mail archives and how-to documents stand a better chance of helping me solve my computing problems than just one paid person.

As for results: Now many of my computers are in better condition than ever.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: news exclusive: "Linux/OSS support: Does free equal shoddy?" news exclusive: "Linux/OSS support weaknesses" news exclusive: "Linux/OSS support: Why a sys admin became a convert

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