Neutrino Consulting provides IT services for small companies that don't want or need an in-house technology departments. Michael Wacht, Neutrino's founder and principal, says because he offers open source software alternatives to his clients, they get to choose the "best of the best," avoiding big license fees and vendor lock in. That, he says, makes Neutrino more competitive.
"Having an in-house staff can be very expensive," Wacht says. Neutrino does everything for its clients, from setting up PDAs and wireless networks to server installation and management. Neutrino can provide a wide range of solutions because it is not tied to any one vendor. "We work with Apple, Microsoft, and other products to fill those niches. We help set up Samba servers; we like using OpenWrt for wireless base stations; we install Jabber servers for instant messaging. Windows Messenger is out of control when it comes to licensing costs. On our hosting servers, we use Apache. IIS seems a bit much -- it's kind of bloated. It does too many things. You never really know what Microsoft is installing [on your hardware]."
Wacht says that unless a customer specifically asks for something else, the default solutions are open source. "They may come to us and say they want Exchange. If they ask for something by name, it's kind of difficult to convince them otherwise. But if they come and they say, 'We're looking for a solution, we present them with different alternatives. We pitch open source to them: there's a solution that will give you these benefits and features." Most of the time, Wacht says, his clients really don't care what is running their infrastructure, "as long as it is secure and supportable."
One product Wacht has been offering lately is the Switchvox PBX, a private phone system that is based on the Asterisk open source telephony platform. "When we first heard about Asterisk and we installed it, it was really interesting. But like most big enterprise products, it's everything and the kitchen sink." Neutrino supports most of its own solutions, but with a large mission-critical application like a phone system, it needed solid outside vendor commitment. Wacht was having a hard time finding a stable implementation to offer his clients because there were so many different versions. "It was difficult, because when we make recommendations, we have the responsbility of making those recommendations for software that is solid and supported," he says. "It's great to have cutting-edge features, but if your phone calls drop every three minutes, we're doing a disservice to our clients. We were looking for a company that had built its own Asterisk distribution with enough support and features, but that didn't add everything they could just to add it."
Wacht says the biggest challenge in working with open source software is "spotty documentation. It requires a lot of time and effort to figure out how these tools work." Still, he says, even with docs that "aren't that great," the community surrounding and support larger projects makes up the difference in many cases. "There's a great online community, and you can figure out [problems], it just takes a little more time. It's also a challenge when you're training up new techs, if they haven't heard of the software before. We have to get them up to speed."
The challenges are worth it, Wacht says, because the benefits are so great. "We're able to offer a bigger suite of products to our clients. [Commercial companies] that develop software will always go for the safe answer and not experiment. But when it comes to open source, people will come up with novel solutions to things that have been bothering them for a while. Usually with open source, someone has come up with a piece of software to fill your need, and you can in turn offer these things to your clients. I can tell them, 'We can put in a really great, secure IM, and it's not going to cost you heavy licensing fees.' It makes us more competitive than other companies that are solely Microsoft or Apple shops. They're kind of limited."
Still, Wacht says, consultants have to remember to carefully consider the needs of their clients. "Understand the limitations of what's out there," he says. "Open source has big promise, and it's great because the price is right. But there are just so many different things out there. Figure out if the product really does suit the needs of your client. It's easy to say, 'Ooh, check this out,' without thinking of the total picture. You want to concentrate on products that are stable; don't experiment on your client. If you're going to resell a product, look for a company that will give support, because you can't be an expert in everything."