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Software // Enterprise Applications
02:00 PM

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.

Applied Industrial Technologies Inc., a distributor of fluid-power and engineered products, runs most of its infrastructure on Microsoft Windows. But two years ago Applied Industrial began running some Web, file, application, and directory servers on the open-source operating system Red Hat Linux. "Our technicians [were] saying, 'we need to have Linux servers in place--we could pull down costs,'" says IT director Bob Falkowski. "We changed out hardware, introduced new software components. But what we failed to realize is, when you do this type of process there's some added burden. You have to fall back on yourself as being the ultimate solution provider when things don't work."

Applied Industrial Technologies isn't the only company to be caught short by the effort and expertise required to support an increasing number of open-source projects. Companies often look at the bright side of deploying Linux and other open-source systems--the cost savings, the standardization, the freedom from vendor lock-in--but aren't well-enough prepared for the challenges that come with implementing or expanding the use of technology that's still in the early stages of development.

It was no surprise when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer issued a memo last month asserting that Windows computing environments offer, among other advantages, a lower cost of ownership than Linux and open-source systems. What may be surprising is the correlation between Ballmer's claims and many companies' real-world experiences. Not only did Ballmer point to independent analysts' reports to bolster his case, but there's growing evidence that many companies are running into unexpected costs, especially in connection with implementation and support, when trying out or switching to open-source systems. Even the costs of signing on with an IT vendor to support open-source deployments may cut into their estimated cost savings.

"It was a learning experience for us," admits Applied Industrial's Falkowski. The company now is "going through the painful process of developing the know-how," he says, with a big focus on retraining staff. Applied Industrial won't disclose how much it has invested in efforts to ramp up open-source expertise, but it has negotiated Linux training from IBM as part of a contract to replace its Tomcat open-source Java servlet and JavaServer Pages with IBM WebSphere. "We looked at the positive aspect too heavily and didn't look at the negative aspects enough."

One of the chief complaints of CIOs and CEOs is that they can't find enough qualified open-source programmers, says Faber Fedor, an open-source consultant with services firm Linux Inc. "I don't think there are enough experienced people out there for the demand," he says. Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio agrees. "There's a dearth of skilled Linux administrators, by comparison to the more-mature Windows, Unix, NetWare, and Macintosh environments," she says. And what happens when too much demand meets too little supply? "They can command a premium," DiDio says. "They get a 20% to 30% salary premium in the large metropolitan markets."

The shortage of open-source talent that Linux adoption is driving at the enterprise level will even out over time as colleges ramp up open-source programs and today's graduates become tomorrow's Linux experts, says Robert Jones, president of HotLinuxJobs, a division of Glacier Technology Services Inc. For now, there's a direct connection between how urgent a company's need for Linux talent is and how much it's willing to pay.

Some early adopters of open-source software in the data center recognized there would be no ready pool of talent to help with the effort but were lucky enough to have Unix pros on staff whose experience on that formerly open-system operating system translated to Linux with comparative ease.

"A Unix specialist and a Linux specialist are really cut from the same cloth," says Mike Prince, CIO at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., which has been using Linux and the Apache open-source Web server since 1999. Two years ago, Burlington Coat rolled out point-of-sale systems running Red Hat and back-end data-center equipment running SuSE Linux. The company's large Oracle databases, now running on Linux, had to be switched over from Unix. The company had 15 seasoned Unix specialists on hand when it began the migration, which helped provide needed data-center experience.

It's a different story for companies that are primarily Microsoft shops. A total switch from Windows to Linux, or even a significant Linux deployment in the middle of a Windows environment, will be three to four times more expensive--and take three times as long to deploy--as an upgrade from one version of Windows to a newer release, according to a Yankee Group study Ballmer cited in his memo. He also cited a May Forrester Research study that said Linux training is on average 15% more expensive than Windows training. The author of that report, Forrester VP Julie Giera, says the caveat there is that her report's sample was very small, mainly because she couldn't find many companies who'd been running Linux more than a year and who closely tracked costs associated with the deployments.

Stephenson (left) and Norris have gotten open-source help for Columbia, Mo., Public Schools via Web queries and searches.

Stephenson (left) and Norris have gotten open-source help for Columbia, Mo., Public Schools via Web queries and searches.

Photo by Austin Walsh
Some companies moving forward with open-source projects are willing to take a chance on the next generation of programmers whose familiarity with open-source systems--thanks in large part to computer-science programs that have taken to Linux because of its low startup costs--may make up for their lack of professional experience. Gloria Stephenson, assistant director of network services at Columbia Public Schools in Missouri, took that chance four years ago, when she turned to Jeremy Norris, her young telecommunication and security specialist, for help replacing the school district's aging Cisco Systems firewall appliance. Just a year out of high school, Norris had been a student in a network-administration class Stephenson taught where he demonstrated proficiency working with open-source software, Stephenson says. He suggested replacing the Cisco appliance with IP Filter, a free open-source firewall program that runs on the FreeBSD operating system.

Even when the firewall implementation ran into problems--data packets started crashing as they passed through the filter--Norris was able to work around them until he could query the IP Filter mailing list for help. A day later, IP Filter administrator Darren Reed responded to Norris' query, stating that a fix was already in the works. "I had a feeling I could get it working," Norris says. "I've been on his mailing list for a while, and I'd seen other people's questions answered."

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