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Got An Open-Source Problem? Red Hat Wants To Be Your Help Desk

Red Hat joins several companies in the business of supporting multiple open-source software packages, freeing IT managers from scouring the Web, newsgroups, and mailing lists to provide in-house support.
There's a battle brewing to see which company can best guarantee that open-source software works.

Open-source software products such as the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, and MySQL database are developed by groups of programmers working together over the Internet, often available free of charge, and distributed under licenses that let users modify their source code. For those reasons, they've gained popularity in businesses' IT departments. But without independent software vendors responsible for each application, companies that use open-source have to make sure they're up to date on the latest revisions and security patches for the code.

Companies often dedicate as many as a half-dozen IT staffers to monitor the Web and E-mail lists for updates to the open-source products they use, says Kim Polese, CEO of SpikeSource Inc., one of a handful of companies that have launched services to offload some of that testing from IT departments. "Senior IT people are basically scouring newsgroups and mailing lists every day," Polese says. "For all the benefits of open source, this is probably the biggest pain." Quality assurance, installation, and support can make up more than half the cost of open-source project, she adds.

SpikeSource is about to get some new competition. This week, Linux vendor Red Hat Inc. said it will enter the market for certifying that groups of open-source apps work well in conjunction. During the first quarter of next year, Red Hat will begin selling technical support for three stacks of open-source software components that companies frequently use together--and which Red Hat has tested for compatibility.

Red Hat's Web stack includes certified versions of Linux, the Apache Web server, the MySQL or PostgreSQL databases, and the PHP scripting language. Its "Java Web stack" adds support for the Apache Tomcat servlet and Java Server Pages container, plus other tools including libraries of XML code. The "enterprise Java stack" includes support for an open-source Java 2 Enterprise Edition application server from the Jonas open-source project, which Red Hat already sells as part of its product line-up. "First [we] nail the one most Web sites are based on. Then [we] go to a J2EE environment," says Red Hat chief technology officer and VP of engineering Brian Stevens. "We'll do the testing and validation instead of customers doing that themselves."

Other tech companies are offering similar services. Hewlett-Packard in August certified more than 200 open-source applications, including the Apache Web server, to run on its computers that use Intel's Itanium processor. In September, Microsoft and open-source application server company JBoss Inc. struck a technical agreement to improve the performance of JBoss products running on Windows.

Microsoft senior VP Bob Muglia says Red Hat's upcoming service is an attempt to address "one of the real substantive weaknesses of Linux"--its lack of centralized tech support. "This is Red Hat trying to respond to a real problem their customers are facing."

Red Hat plans to price its support for the three software stacks starting at $599 per server annually. That's lower than SpikeSource's price of $995 for 10 support "incidents." SpikeSource's prices vary based on how quickly customers receive a response, and whether they receive telephone in addition to online support. But Polese says comparing Red Hat's and SpikeSource's prices is an "apples and oranges situation."

SpikeSource assembles pre-tested packages of more than 100 software components including the Red Hat and Novell versions of Linux, the Apache Web Server, JBoss app server, My SQL database, PHP scripting language, and Tomcat servlet container, plus supports open-source software running on Windows. For example, SpikeSource sells a product that certifies the open-source SugarCRM application on Windows. "It's not one LAMP stack," says Polese.