Last week I had an interview for a new consulting gig with three technical management type people. It turned into a 90 minute technical discussion on a variety of Linux and UNIX issues. That’s fine. I usually do well in that kind of interview. At one point the discussion turned to Open Source applications in the enterprise. One of the comments by one of my interviewers was that Open Source apps are usually “hero applications”, meaning that one system administrator knows about them and when that admin leaves nobody knows anything about them and support just isn’t there.
Is he right? Only to a point. Yes, I’ve seen many places where a given systems administrator is the sole source of knowledge on a given subject. That situation isn’t limited to Open Source software. Often the systems administrator is, at least in part, at fault. Either they aren’t good at sharing information and cross training or else they simply have no desire to do so. Some consciously try to build their own little fiefdom and make themselves indispensable to the organization.
It’s almost always management’s fault, again at least in part. Some technical managers do little to encourage or insist on cross training, particularly if it makes a valuable systems administrator unhappy. In other cases upper management has cut IT in general and systems administration in particular to the bone or even deep into the bone, to the point where the remaining staff simply hasn’t the time to properly maintain and patch the servers they have, let alone roll out new systems, write documentation, and to get training for themselves and train others.
Having said all that there is also a problem of the perception many managers who are accustomed to dealing with strictly commercial, proprietary software have when it comes to Open Source. The “hero applications” comment is a perfect example of how such managers misunderstand the community support model. Most even modestly popular Open Source projects have excellent support. It just may not be in the form of a corporate help desk owned by the company who produces the software.
The community support model, consisting of online documentation, mailing lists, and IRC channels often offers faster response times and more knowledgeable help than the traditional commercial support models and, in many cases, gives users direct access to the developers. I’ve supported Open Source enterprise applications for longer than I care to admit, ranging from AMANDA for backups to Nagios for systems and applications monitoring. In each case I was able to get quality support and solutions. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that O’Reilly publishes many great references on Open Source applications that are far better than any manual. Of course, if you’re reading this on the O’Reillynet website you already know this.
In addition, for anything an enterprise is likely to use there really is paid commercial support for Open Source applications. Sometimes the developers have started a company to offer support. MySQL is an excellent example. Even if that doesn’t exist there is everything from small local consulting firms to huge corporate consulting businesses like IBM Global Services which will happily provide support for Open Source applications for a fee.
Somehow, despite years of many of us touting Open Source software and the community support model and making clear that support is out there the message just hasn’t gotten out. Many IT managers remain skeptical. How can we change their misconceptions? I wish I knew.
Meanwhile, the organization I interviewed with has no enterprise monitoring solution. They toyed with HP OpenView but lack of resources has killed any effort in that direction. Right now they have absolutely nothing. I talked about Nagios. We’ll see if the two managers who were hastily jotting down notes with great interest will convince the skeptic that an Open Source solution is sure better than the nothing they have now and might even meet their needs very well.