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11/5/2004
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In Search Of Open-Source Experts

As companies ramp up open-source deployments, expertise is in high demand and short supply. The costs of developing talent can add up.

Columbia gets support for its Web server running on SuSE Linux from Novell, but the only way to troubleshoot other open-source programs is to do what Norris did: search the Web and post queries to the open-source community. Columbia's IT staff proactively engages the open-source community to get the latest patches and upgrades, but "this can be time consuming," Stephenson admits.

Most companies aren't going to rely on Web searches and hacker hangouts to recruit open-source talent. That's why business-class support may be best derived from vendors with open-source expertise, says Dan Frye, director of IBM's Linux Technology Center. "You can't put applications in an enterprise environment without the right service and support," Frye says. IBM employs about 1,000 IT professionals trained not only to use open-source software but also to support IBM's Linux customers and contribute code back to the open-source community. Hewlett-Packard, another Linux advocate, claims to employ more than 6,500 workers within HP services who have Linux expertise. Novell has about 700 support personnel who can provide customers with Linux systems support.

The cost of Linux support varies depending on what's required and the way support contracts are structured. Some users bundle Linux support within broader data-center contracts--with HP, IBM, or Novell that can climb well into six figures. HP says that 24-by-7 software support for Red Hat Enterprise Linux is priced at $1,332 per server per year, for example. Red Hat itself charges a $2,500 annual per-license fee for Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS on x86 servers that includes unlimited phone calls and Web access to service reps. The cost jumps to $18,000 for Red Hat on a mainframe.

Having access to support and services from such companies can ease the transition to open systems, vendors say. "Three years ago, you had to be a developer to deploy Linux," says Brian Stevens, VP of operating system development at Red Hat. "Today, you don't." But even with its in-house expertise, Burlington turns to IBM, Novell, or Red Hat for support with Linux-specific issues, CIO Prince says.

Financial-services provider KeyCorp has looked to HP and Red Hat to train its 1,400 IT employees on open-source technology rather than hire new programmers. About half of the financial-services company's IT operations use distributed applications written with IBM WebSphere tools and the Perl programming language as well as the Java 2 Enterprise Edition platform, Lotus Domino, and Microsoft .Net. KeyCorp still runs its core Cobol-based banking applications on mainframes and a DB2 relational database.


Successful Linux implementations drive demand for more cross-training of KeyCorp's Unix staff, says Bob Dutile, executive VP of Key Technology Services. Photo by Bob Stefko

Successful Linux implementations drive demand for more cross-training of KeyCorp's Unix staff, says Bob Dutile, executive VP of Key Technology Services.

Photo by Bob Stefko
KeyCorp spent $130,000 to get its Linux strategy off the ground during the fourth quarter of last year and the first of this year. Only about $10,000 to $15,000 was needed for initial training classes for staff Unix engineers. The rest went to Red Hat for helping the company do a total-cost-of-ownership study and develop a good open-source migration strategy. "Since then, this has very much been a bootstrap operation, with each successful five to 10 implementations driving demand for additional cross-training of our Unix staff and that additional cross-training enabling us to implement even more systems," says Bob Dutile, executive VP of Key Technology Services, KeyCorp's technology division. KeyCorp plans to migrate file, print, and document-processing apps this year to Red Hat Linux running on HP Intel-based ProLiant servers. Dutile expects that by the end of the year KeyCorp will have as many as 55 servers running Linux. "The specific training costs since the first quarter have been very low and have all been absorbed within the normal departmental operating budgets," he says.

While Dutile is reluctant to hire programmers right out of school--"I don't know that I've ever found a developer out of college who was ready for the market"--he does have a trick for finding good talent. He sometimes searches Google and SourceForge.net, a repos- itory for open-source code that's maintained by VA Software Corp., to see which programmers are working on projects that demonstrate skills valuable to KeyCorp. This lets Dutile take a look at a programmer's work. "If I was hiring a programmer from another bank, it's not likely that bank would let me go and evaluate the code that person worked on for them," Dutile says.

SourceForge has more than 900,000 registered users and includes a repository of more than 89,500 open-source programs under development. Although VA Software won't divulge the specific demographics of its user base, the company confirms that more than 40,000 companies, government agencies, and other organizations have two or more users registered with SourceForge. A percentage of those other registered users may be high-school kids or hobbyists, not potentially employable talent.

Open-source expertise is building. Young programmers such as Columbia Public Schools' Norris find it hard to envision a world without open-source software. He's considering going to school to study computer science. One of the main reasons? "It would let me contribute more back to the open-source community," he says.

And companies can contribute to the growing pool of open-source talent. Applied Industrial positioned its open-source training as a career-enhancing step. "We offered people here a way to reinvent themselves," says IT director Falkowski. But considering that Windows servers outnumber Linux servers in his company by a ratio of 4-to-1, it's understandable that not everyone was eager to leave a well-established environment for the less-established world of open-source. Most of those who are retraining, Falkowski says, have backgrounds in Unix and C or C++ programming skills.

The open-source world, like any emerging environment, is fraught with peril. There's the threat of lawsuits--spurious or not--by vendors claiming open-source software infringes on their intellectual property. But potential users of open-source systems also have to consider that there might not be enough expertise to support their projects adequately and that getting that expertise can be more expensive--and more of an effort--than they anticipate. Is open source worth it? Steve Ballmer has his opinion, but most companies are going to have to answer that question for themselves.

--With John Foley

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