October 25, 2000

Battling for Linux support customers

Author: JT Smith

By Grant Gross
Managing Editor

A competitor of Red Hat says the Linux distributor is acting "proprietary" with its new Web-based support service, Red Hat Networks, but Red Hat says supporting its own software just makes business sense.

Reg Broughton's company, Acrylis, offers WhatifLinux, a multi-distribution support service, launched in April. WhatifLinux is trying to separate its service from the Red Hat Network, launched in September, by saying its product supports all flavors of Linux, not just Red Hat.

"Red Hat's offering is very much in the Red Hat model," says Broughton, president of Acrylis. "It's by Red Hat for Red Hat, if you like a pseudo-proprietary environment."

But Billy Marshall, director of the Red Hat Network, says it only makes sense for Red Hat to support its own product. By concentrating on software updates, security fixes, and system optimizing information only for Red Hat, the network can deliver that information faster, he says.

"We don't pretend to release things that have been evaluated in Debian," he says. "Our customers have said, 'We want you to take responsibility for these [Red Hat] updates.' " Marshall compared Broughton's criticism to someone faulting NewsForge's parent company, hardware supplier VA Linux, for not supporting Sun or Dell products.

The battle for market share in Linux support services may be especially important, because support is a large chunk of many Open Source companies' business plans. When distributors are expected to give away a version of their product for free, people like Marshall argue that support is a way for Red Hat to stay in business. "We have a unique ability to provide a deep resource for Red Hat," he adds.

One advantage of WhatifLinux is that a company can evaluate or use several distributions while still getting support for them, said Keith Erskine, director of product management for Acrylis. "We're enabling choice for our customers," he says.

To which Broughton adds: "Which is the whole point of the Open Source world, I thought."

Broughton says he's not trying to knock down Red Hat's business model, just point out the difference between his product and theirs. "We wholeheartedly support and endorse the way Red Hat delivers the Red Hat Network," he says. "The reason we support it is it's identical to our own."

The two services are similar in some ways. Both deliver support alerts, primarily by email, to users based on what kinds of information the user wants to see. Information can include software updates, security alerts, bug fixes, etc., with the goal of cutting through what Marshall calls "information overload" in the constantly innovating Open Source community to deliver features the user deems important.

"We're giving you information only on things that impact your life based on the preferences you give us," says Red Hat's Marshall. "You don't have to sift through the noise -- we do it for you."

Marhall talks up the assistance Red Hat Network can provide to companies that are often short of qualified Linux systems administrators. While Red Hat touts the product-specific information supplied by Red Hat Network, WhatifLinux pitches its unique "what if" decision support, giving the administrator analysis about what happens if he or she tweaks a piece of software or installs something new. WhatifLinux also says its two-sided encryption is an advantage, while it admits Red Hat's user interface is stronger.

Pricing for the two services is based on a number of factors, including the number of users. Right now, Red Hat is featuring a free trial on Red Hat Network, but the price for a single user will be about $120 a year, Marshall says. WhatifLinux is priced at $49 a year for a single user.


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