Can Open-Source Provide Adequate Support?

In most cases, support for open-source products is just as good as commercial products.

As open-source software has matured and evolved over the years, it has faced many questions and misconceptions about its suitability for enterprise use. Among those questions: Can open source deliver enterprise-class performance and scalability? Is it secure? Can it be extended to meet diverse enterprise needs? Can it meet the usability needs of everyday users?

Each of these questions has been answered in the affirmative, but I still get one lingering question from IT managers at large enterprises: Can open-source products provide the kind of high-level, 24-by-7 support large corporations require?

For the most part, my answer is yes, although support is clearly better in some areas of open source than in others.

Open-source support options can be considered in a hierarchical tier.

At the top of the support stack are the high-level corporate support options that match those of commercial applications. Next down is support from small spinoffs—companies often started up by the developers of the open-source application. Then there are the third-party companies that offer support for numerous open-source applications. And finally, there are the classic, informal user groups and forums.

Probably the best-known support tier is the top level, which includes companies such as Red Hat, Novell and IBM. Here, one finds true enterprise-class support options that will satisfy even the biggest corporations.

A good example of the next tier of open-source support is MySQL AB, which was created by the developers of the MySQL database. Here, one gets very high-quality support from people who know the product. While the support offered here isnt as robust as the support provided by the top-tier companies, it is at least as good as the support most smaller commercial software companies provide and will satisfy almost any enterprise.

So, on the top two tiers, we have high-quality support options that are not a limiting factor when it comes to choosing and deploying open-source applications. But the problem is these two tiers support a very small portion of the vast number of open-source applications out there. The majority of open-source applications dont—or cant—offer anywhere near the same level of support.

This is where the third-party support companies come in. Often composed of consultants or self-taught experts with lots of experience in the open-source applications they support, these companies can offer a high level of expertise when it comes to deployment and customization.

But it is at this point that some IT buyers start to get worried. The biggest questions for them are which third-party company to pick and how to determine whether it will be able to provide the kind of high-level support that enterprises require. Companies can find the answers to these questions, but most enterprise IT managers are not used to dealing with variables of this kind.

Open-source developers and support organizations can provide some useful guidance and even comfort to prospective corporate users. It would be really useful if open-source-application Web sites included a prominent list of approved support companies. This would be a lot more comforting to a business investigating an open-source application than blind searches on Google and assorted online forums. Open-source-application Web sites should also include a feedback area so IT staffers can share their experiences—good and bad.

Providing support for an open-source enterprise application is different in a lot of ways—many of them positive—from providing support for a commercial application. For example, if a business uses an older application and the vendor of the app stops supporting it, the business is out of luck. This is not likely to happen with an open-source application because there will almost always be someone around who is supporting it and, because the application is open-source, it can continue to be grown.

Enterprises should not let support concerns get in the way of using open-source software. In most cases, you can get support that is just as good as commercial products—maybe even a little better.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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