Technical support for Linux, by and large, consisted of posting a query in one of the online Linux newsgroups. As more people begin using Linux for critical applications in the business world, however, that is beginning to change. Companies such as Red Hat and LinuxCare have jumped into the Linux support business, offering support packages aimed at corporations who want to use Linux in large or mission-critical applications. Support, such as this, is not cheap. Red Hat's Platinum support package, which offers unlimited, around the-clock phone support for your entire company, plus training, will set you back $55,000 a year.
Why pay $55,000 for information that you can get for free on the Web? "Customers can still post a question on the Web," says Carolyn Sparano, Director of Services for Red Hat. "But when you're running Linux in a business environment you don't always have the luxury of time to wait for an answer to come back."
Red Hat, which is based in Durham, North Carolina, has built up a call center with some 70 technicians. In October, it opened another, smaller center in the United Kingdom. Besides its Platinum support package, Red Hat offers a range of other support options, including "per incident" support, for $225 a call, remote dial-in administration, onsite support, as well as support targeted specifically for Linux developers.
Other Linux vendors provide similar offerings. Caldera, SuSe, Corel and TurboLinux all provide free installation support -- typically 60 or 90 days of email and phone support -- as well as optional longer term support contracts. Both Red Hat and LinuxCare offer support for Open Source applications which are frequently used with Linux, such as sendmail and the Apache Web server.
For users who don't want to be tied to a particular Linux vendor, LinuxCare, in San Francisco, offers a wide range of support options. Linuxcare supports all the major distributions of Linux with phone and email support, as well as on-site consulting. The company also offers courses on topics such as Linux system administration, Linux security, and a program to certify specific hardware and software products that will run using Linux.
Providing commercial support for Linux is a relatively new business, and many vendors are contracting out support services. Dell Computer Corp., for example, recently announced that it will make Linux available on its entire range of servers and will have contracts with LinuxCare for phone support for its Linux customers. LinuxCare also provides IBM's Linux customers with technical support for "level 3" problems, which are complicated issues that may involve changes to the Linux source code. VA Linux Systems, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has hired nation-wide support provider DecisionOne, in Frazer, Penn, to provide phone support to its customers. Even Red Hat has contracted with client-server consulting group Collective Technologies, of Austin, Texas, for onsite support and consulting services.
As the use of Linux spreads, more companies are adding Linux expertise to their technical support offerings. Clearwater, Fla-based computer distributor Tech Data Corp. offers Red Hat, Caldera and Corel versions of Linux to its network of 100,000 computer resellers. These resellers provide consulting services and technical support to their customers, says Larry Armold, Tech Data's vice-president of sales support and operations. When the resellers need support, they call Tech Data -- which in turn, has an agreement with Red Hat for support on complicated technical support issues. So far, however, most of the questions fielded by Tech Data's ten Linux support technicians have been installation and configuration questions, says Armold.