September 1, 2006

New report says support needs of enterprise users changing

Author: Lisa Hoover

According to a report released recently by The 451 Group, enterprise users aren't as concerned with a stack provider's ability to provide exclusive support for their products as previously thought. The report, "Stack and Deliver," suggests that stack providers -- companies that offer pre-assembled sets (stacks) of commonly used open source software components and services -- should focus more on the quality of support, not just its delivery method.

This idea flies in the face of a commonly held theory that enterprise users want a single point of accountability, or "single throat to choke," for software support services. A survey of 70 self-selecting stack customers revealed that while the need for vendor support is critical, the vast majority of users are willing to access that support through several channels rather than rely on a single vendor to provide support for all components in a stack.

Raven Zachary, senior analyst and practice head for open source at The 451 Group, isn't surprised. "These survey results back up the notions we had going into the report," he says. "End users want access to expertise, and they're willing to contact multiple people to get it." Zachary says that the notion that a stack provider should be a user's sole support connection most likely originated with small, newly formed companies that lacked the internal resources to address technical software issues. As companies grow larger and gain experience in using open source software, they are more likely to be willing to use multiple support options.

"Often, the 'single throat' is an internal employee at a company," says Zachary. "On the other hand, if 20 components are being used by a company, it doesn't scale for them to hire 20 developers, so they get consulting contracts or seek outside support." According to the report, large enterprise customers are also more likely to "build internal open source expertise of their own, augmented by relationships directly with software component vendors." This, the report claims, will lead to a decrease in demand for stack vendors to provide high levels of support to end users.

Some stack providers disagree with that assessment.

According to Kim Weins, vice president of marketing at OpenLogic, "Our users report they want a consolidated source of support. They don't want to go to 100 vendors [for answers]."

Some stack providers outsource component support back to the company where the software originates. Others choose to limit the amount of open source projects they offer based on the number of components the vendor feels it can successfully support internally. According to Weins, stack providers like Novell and Red Hat and JBoss offer around 10 to 20 open source software components. Colorado-based OpenLogic says it offers more than 160 open source software choices, along with various levels of support services.

Offering so many components was a customer-driven choice, Weins says. "When we ask companies what they want [in their stacks], we get large lists of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of components. That's the rule, not the exception." Often a company has a long list of desired software because "there's lots of variety within an organization and within individual departments. So we find enterprise users need breadth -- lots of options -- and choice -- several options within specific categories." And along with that breadth and choice comes a need for support.

Weins agrees with The 451 Group's assessment that customer support is a big issue and acknowledges providing sufficient support can be difficult as the number of software components within a stack increases. Weins says OpenLogic's business model allows the company to support those 160 software stack components while maintaining the high quality of support users expect. OpenLogic's approach is not to offer a set of fixed stacks, but instead let users create and customize their own based on their needs, then offer support for the components that the customers choose.

OpenLogic's in-house support team addresses common first- and second-level support for general maintenance issues. Third- and fourth-level problems like bugs and integration issues get sent to the companies where the software originated. OpenLogic then works with the user and software vendor toward a resolution. "Users don't want only one support point, but they don't want 160 either," Weins says. "We offer the best of both worlds."

In fact, says Weins, some customers are adamant that they want one go-to source for all their open source support needs. "[Some users] need a variety of support, from creating, to managing, to supporting their stacks."

What's hot, what's not

While high-quality support is important to enterprise users, certification testing, installation, delivery, and training are apparently not. Those factors were ranked among the lowest in customer interest when choosing a stack provider by respondents to The 451 Group's survey. Zachary says those issues have become less important as companies become used to working within an open source environment. "They don't need a lot of handholding," he says. "Developers are already comfortable, so that's not really relevant to them."

Zachary says that in order for stack providers to stay competitive, they should focus on the quality of support they offer customers. He says existing providers should reconsider their business models and be prepared to refine and refocus their support delivery system in order to thrive in the long term, something he says is already beginning to occur within the industry.

"OpenLogic has a new business model, SpikeSource has stopped focusing on the end user, and Unisys is considering trying to build a whole support business," Zachary points out.

The report also identified several trends that The 451 Group says will change the landscape of open source software for both stack providers and end users. As the number of vendors in the market continues to grow, the result will be a greater potential for mergers and acquisitions. As organizations become more comfortable with open source technology, they will likely assume a greater level of ownership in the support process and require less "handholding" from stack providers. The report also claims that as vendors offer more open source products and enterprise users implement more open source software within their companies, there will likely be a sharp increase in the hiring of core developers for both vendors and users alike.

Zachary says that while he expected to see a certain level of competitiveness between open source stack providers attempting to woo end users, he was surprised to discover a high percentage of partnerships developing as well. "I was surprised to see just as much partnering as there are competitive relationships," says Zachary. "It was startling. That means everyone wants to play with everyone, sides haven't been [chosen], and people are testing the waters."

Zachary says he was also surprised at the sheer number of stack providers that have emerged in recent years. "It used to be when you said 'stack provider' companies like Novell, Red Hat and JBoss, Sun Microsystems, and OpenLogic came to mind, but the list stopped there. [Our report] covered 17 vendors that are looking to expand in this space. I see open source vendors having a strong opportunity to compete."

"Change is on the horizon," Zachary says.


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