We've been seeing stories lately indicating that Microsoft is beefing up its direct sales staff and relying less on independent resellers. If you're one of those resellers, it looks like it's time for you to start offering Linux and Free/Open Source solutions in addition to the Windows-based ones on which you've based your business in the past, if only in self-defense. Chances are, you and your clients will like Linux a lot once you get used to it. And if you're clever, you may see higher earnings than you did when you only sold Windows products.
Linux really isn't all that hard to learn, you know. There are plenty of books and classes and even free tutorials available. You can get certifications that cover Linux in general, and certificates for specific Linux distributions, with the Red Hat certification program probably being the best-known one, especially if you're in North America.
You'll also want to hook up up with at least two or three reliable sources of "casual" Linux knowledge. Some of the ones mentioned in comments attached to this Linux.com poll are excellent, and we certainly suggest becoming active in your local Linux Users Group, not only for support but also because that LUG can become a vital recruiting resource when your installed Linux base grows to the point where you need to hire experienced Linux people.
(Even on day one of your venture into Linux, having a pool of potential Linux subcontractors on tap is a good idea. So getting involved with that LUG should be a priority, not something you put off until you're in a bind.)
Getting commercial Linux support
Your Microsoft-oriented customers will want to make sure that Linux support is as easy to get as support for proprietary software. You may know (or soon will know) that the free support you get for Linux and most Free and/or Open Source applications through email lists and Web forums can be at least as good as what you get from commercial software companies, but it's still good to reassure your clients that you have a "big gun" backing you up.
Dell, HP, and IBM all offer Linux support if you sell their hardware, and IBM has some quite comprehensive reseller programs for both hardware and software that revolve around Linux.
Red Hat and SuSE have well-established Linux reseller programs -- up to and including "commercialized" licensing schemes (that include support) for their corporate-targeted software packages -- that give you room for a nice markup.
Or you can "roll your own" Linux solutions at little or no cost, but until or unless you have a solid track record implementing Linux and Open Source-based systems, you are probably better off having some sort of formal, branded support organization behind you, if only because it looks good to clients.
Linux acceptance is growing
Almost everyone we talk to says it's getting easier to "sell" Linux and Open Source to small and medium-sized businesses every year, and that if you hang out your "Linux shingle" you'll get some nice leads coming to you that you wouldn't otherwise have gotten.
Some of your clients are ready for Linux on their desktops, and some aren't. But chances are, almost all of them have places where they can and should use Linux servers, and since server software licenses (and hardware) are often among the highest-margin items in the IT world, they're certainly a great place to start converting to Linux.
If you or a client want to see some excellent reasons to look at Linux, even without the fear of Microsoft trying to take away part of your business, we strongly recommend David Wheeler's Why Open Source Software/Free Software (OSS/FS)? Look at the Numbers! article.
More money in your pocket
There you are, bidding on a small office network that will include 16 desktops and two networked printers. Your client only needs basic email and browsing, plus two specialty apps you'll need to write (or have written), on 12 of the desktops, and wants to use an accounting application that's only available for Windows on four of them in addition to the above.
You might as well write the specialty apps so they'll run in Linux in the first place. There are many, many ways to do this without paying any IDE or compiler license fees, and lots of skilled programmers with strong Linux experience hungry for work. (Remember that LUG!)
You can run all your desktops from a single server under Linux, no problem, with a second server running Win 2K for the accounting application (and any other Windows-only apps your client may decide he or she needs later) that only needs to be licensed for four concurrent users, not for the entire business.
Your bid will include low-cost, lightweight "boot from the network" thin clients on desktops instead of full-featured PCs, plus the two servers. Your maintenance will be a breeze; you'll only have two boxes to keep patched and up to date. With all those savings, you ought to be able to both underbid Microsoft-locked competitors and increase your profit margin.
"Free as in Free Enterprise"
Perhaps -- just perhaps -- if you decide to move into Linux by going the IBM Websphere route, someday the IBM juggernaut may decide small fry like you are no longer needed. But even so, most WebSphere applications have some sort of Open Source base aat their hearts so you could free yourself (and your clients) from IBM if, deity forbid, that ever happened.
And IBM does not control Linux the way Microsoft controls Windows. No single company controls Linux. Not HP, not Dell, not Red Hat, not the Open Source Development Lab (where Linus Torvalds now works) nor anyone else. SCO likes to think they have some sort of ownership of some Linux code, but that's their problem, not yours.
We first heard the "Free as in Free Enterprise" line from Bob Lefkowitz, a highly-placed IT manager for Merrill Lynch, the world's largest stock brokerage. The line has also been repeated elsewhere many times.
One thing any small business operator must embrace in order to survive is Free Enterprise, right?
So welcome to the world of Linux and Free/Open Source Software, Mr. and Ms. independent reseller. We're happy to see you join us, not only at the LUG meeting but in the many support forums assorted members of the community have set up to help you learn what all this "Open Source" stuff can do for you.
And who knows? Perhaps, before long, you will be sponsoring your own help forums -- that will help you bring in more of that fine, lucrative Linux business!