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.
Doing It Yourself
There are still plenty of technically-savvy Linux users who see little point in paying for technical support. One reason for that is that the source code for Linux is freely available. “With Linux, access to the source code is your technical support,” says Sgt. Fred Wissing, Senior Unix System Administrator at the New Jersey State Police. “If you have a problem, you can look at the source and figure it out yourself.”
The New Jersey State Police have been using Linux for about four years, according to Wissing. The department now runs about ten Linux systems for DNS, mail and intranet servers, as well as for applications such as the National Instant Check System for gun purchases. Gun dealers across New Jersey use that system to make sure they’re not selling guns to convicted felons.
Supporting these applications is made easier by Linux’ stability, says Wissing. “Anything I deploy on Linux, never breaks,” he says. “It’s not susceptible to viruses, and I don’t have to continually lay patches on it to fix things.” The New Jersey State Police DNS server, for example, has been running for 456 days without being shut down.
On the rare occasions when the Linux source code is not enough, Wissing turns to the Web. While he’s familiar with the Usenet newsgroups on Linux, Wissing usually starts with a search on Yahoo, Google or another Internet search engine. “If I have to post a question on a news group,” he says, “that means it’s really hard to find, because usually I’ll hit a Web page with the information I need right away.” That’s probably because there’s a wealth of Linux information available online.
There are a plethora of portals focusing on Linux, including LinuxPorts, Linux International, and Linux Online. Linux Today is a good place to find the most recent news and press releases about Linux. Linux bug fixes and other code changes can be found at Freshmeat, an online software repository for Linux and other Open Source software programs.
In addition, there’s the Linux Documentation Project, which aims to be the central location for Linux information. The site has the Linux manual pages, along with books such as the Linux Installation and Getting Started Guide and the Linux System Administrators’ Guide. There are also more than 200 shorter guides called HOWTOs, which provide detailed information on specialized topics such as how to set up a firewall using Linux and where to find a computer consultant who can support Linux.
And then there are the Usenet newsgroups, online discussions where anyone can post a question about Linux. Two newsgroups useful for Linux newcomers are comp.os.linux.answers and comp.os.linux.advocacy. The only Linux newsgroup to allow commercial postings — comp.os.linux.announce — is a good place to find information on new products for Linux, both commercial and Open Source. Newsgroups such as comp.os.linux.system and comp.os.linux.networking are forums for discussions of more specialized topics.
Dan Orzech is a Philadelphia-based technology writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and computer publications such as EarthWeb’s Datamation.
A Sampling of Linux Support
Caldera Systems, Inc.
* Installation Support
* E-mail Support
* Hourly Telephone Support
* One-Time Incident Call
* Per Incident Support – Call Packs
* Enhanced Support – Unlimited Telephone Support
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
* Installation Support
* Per Incident Support – Phone
* Per Incident Support – Email
San Francisco, CA
* Hourly $150/hour. Half-hour minimum. * Silver: 7am-5pm, PST. Optional remote administration. $50,000. * Gold: 5am-7pm, PST. Optional remote administration. $65,000. * Platinum: 5am-7pm, PST. Includes remote administration. $85,000. * Platinum: 24 X 7. Includes remote administration. $105,000.
Red Hat, Inc.
Durham, North Carolina
* Installation support
* Per Incident support
* Enterprise Support Program
* Developer Support Program
* Red Hat Onsite – Onsite support, systems administration and consulting is available.