The Wide-Open Career Landscape of FOSS Tech Support

The growing popularity of free open source software (FOSS) is a sure sign thatconsumers and software developers alike are becoming more disenchantedwith costly proprietary products. However, the promise of free software canbe tarnished when software packages need configuration help and that help proves hard to find. Whenusers have to wade through dozens of forum messages seeking asolution, the FOSS philosophy can turn into aturn-off.

Especially for business users, the cost of tech support for freesoftware and the various Linux distributions can become an issuethat makes IT managers and CIOs reluctant to migrate from theWindows platform. Although the software is free, users shouldnot expect the developers to absorb the cost of helping them to useit.

“Microsoft Vista was so bad that it helped the need for an alternativesupport channel. This opened doors for Linux. The economic crisis alsohelped generate a need for tech support for Linux and open sourcesoftware,” Joel Bomgar, cofounder and CEO of Bomgar, toldLinuxInsider.

Open sources is a cheap way for businesses to meet budgetary goals, he noted. Bomgar developed a remote service platform forcompanies such as Novell to use for providing tech support for FOSScustomers.

FOSS Support Costly

The marketplace for paid tech support for most open source software isrelatively small. What may count more significantly is the marketshare of a particular software niche.

“The cost of tech support for free open source compared to proprietarysoftware ends up being about the same. It’s really more about themarket share of the products — how many people are using the tools,”John Whaley, founder and Acting CTO at MokaFive, told LinuxInsider.His company developes and supports a Mac-PC-Linux environmentmanagement tool around virtualization.

A few market drivers suggest that the use of FOSS tools is on theupswing, but it still has a very small presence overall in theenterprise relative to the full landscape of software offerings, heexplained.

Helping Hand

As desktop Linux distros go, Ubuntu has been moderatelysuccessful, according to Whaley. His use of”moderate” here means if there is a 10:1 ratio of Windows to Mac, thereis probably another 10:1 ratio of Mac to Ubuntu.

“The release of Ubuntu and Dell’s adoption of it helped the opensource movement somewhat,” agreed Nathan McNeill, cofounder and vicepresident of product strategy for Bomgar.

Also, Google’s recent announcement about its development of a newLinux-based OS is generatingnew interest in supporting open source products. A company like Googlecould give FOSS a lot of clout and change the game in terms of theadoption of open source, though it will be gradual, Whaley said.

Career Outlook

As free software use grows in business, so will the demand forqualified tech help. The demand for open source support specialists isgrowing at a tremendous rate, according to Kim Weins, senior vicepresident of products and marketing at OpenLogic.

“Although the economy is putting pressure on companies to save money –and that helps fuel more open source software usage — we think thatother aspects of open source software, including quality of the codeand the fact that there isn’t vendor lock-in, will keep open sourcesoftware growing well after the economy recovers,” Weins toldLinuxInsider.

In fact, some specialized software markets are already seeing ashortage of available tech support.

“Based on the in-bound recommendation/referral requests we get, itappears that there is a widespread shortage of deep domain expertisein Lucene/Solr technology, specifically in performance/operationaloptimization area. In my earlier life, I experienced the same thingfor Linux. Good ones are always in demand,” Anil Uberoi, CMO at LucidImagination, told LinuxInsider.

Growing Field

Many large companies are actively using 100 or more open source softwarepackages. As enterprise governance policies mature, enterprises arerequiring professional SLA support, accordihttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_level_agreement.

Some companies choose to hire internal experts in certain projects,but many choose commercial support vendors, such as OpenLogic. Thisallows enterprises to cover their tech support outlay in a less costlyway to get the expertise they need without adding dedicated headcount.

“Almost all of the market research reports suggest that the OSS growthover the past five years has been above industry averages,” saidUberoi.

For certain software and application segments — most notably the LAMPstack — he has seen asimilar growth in Lucene/Solr deployments in the enterprise searchsegment.

Skill Sets

Open source experts are in demand both within enterprises and in thesupport departments of commercial vendors, noted Weins. Familiarityand experience with open source software is a critical skill in bothdevelopment and support functions.

Generally, those skill sets differ greatly between proprietary andopen source software. Most applications include multiple opensource components integrated with custom and proprietary code, so itis not sufficient for tech support workers to just understand one opensource package, according to Weins.

“Open source support experts need to understand how various packagesintegrate with each other and work together. You don’t provide supporton just one package. You have to view it as a part of an integratedstack,” she said.

Pay Rates Stable

Given the growing need for open source tech support pros, the gap inpay between proprietary and open source technicians is slight. Some companies are even rewarding the specialized skill open source supportrequires with a pay edge.

“There is virtually no difference in pay. We pay competitive salariesto our tech support engineers. As anything else, it is a factor ofsupply and demand,” asserted Uberoi.

While agreeing that the pay scales are mostly the same, Weinsposited that the open source support experts her company hires arein fact generally paid better than the average support person for aproprietary solution.

“This is because we expect more of them. They need to be familiar withmultiple technologies and understand how they work together withproprietary software and custom software,” she explained.

No Monkeying Around

Most consumers and office workers have had ample experience with phonesupport technicians reading from a screen to asses the symptoms andfigure out successful solutions. That approach may work with the Windowsplatform, but open source software generally is not as conducive to suchtemplate repairs.

“From a support standpoint, you can’t have monkeys doing the supportcalls. The different flavors of Linux require different supportsolutions. The various Linux distros and the open source softwarepackages developed for them have dozens of ways to configure them,”said McNeill.

It is next to impossible to troubleshoot Linux that way. Linux has toomany variables, Bomgar agreed.

Newest Needs

McNeill sees a growing placement for Linux support — and thusopen source — for back end operations, and Bomgar noted that a lot more traction for Linux is occurring. Bothfactors mean a need for more tech support.

“Interest in netbooks is generating levels of tech support that arelike a signal sent when the navy fires a shot across another vessel’sbow,” said Bomgar. “Netbooks are so inexpensive that workers arebuying them without IT’s permission. They buy it and use it and thenstuff needs fixing, but the workers have nowhere to go for techsupport. IT has to support it but isn’t familiar with open source.”

Marketing departments seldom talk to support departments when a newproduct is rolled out. So consumers are stuck with products that lacksupport from the companies selling them, he explained.

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