June 26, 2003

Selling Linux keeps getting easier

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
Teresa Spangler started marketing Linux-based products back in 1997 as co-founder of a small startup company in North Carolina. From there she went to Red Hat. Now she's the U.S. general manager for Trustix. Teresa says Linux is an easier corporate "sell" today than ever before, and is likely to be an even easier one in the future.

At first, with the little server company, Teresa says, "We didn't talk about the Linux operating system. We talked about solutions." That venture went nowhere -- and not necessarily because of the lack of emphasis on Linux or because Teresa and her partners used it. She says Cobalt did essentially the same thing, but "they were on the West Coast, so they could get funding and move faster."

Sometimes life's like that. So she jumped to (pre-IPO) Red Hat in 1998, where Linux was obviously sold openly to customers instead of being buried inside a box.

At that point -- 1998 -- Teresa says, Linux started becoming "cool. Geeky-cool, anyway."

Back then, she recalls, "When we went into executive offices [to talk about Linux], we'd hear something like, 'A couple of our tech guys are playing with it, but Linux has scalability and other issues."

Teresa says another big set of questions about Linux back then revolved around support. Potential corporate Linux users "needed to have someone to service them and answer support questions." Sure, she says, the tech people loved Linux because they could build their own systems and have complete control over them, but "upper management had questions like, 'If these guys went away, what would we do?'"

Now, she says, Trustix (and, by implication, other commercial Linux vendors) have developed enough GUI administration tools for Linux that management's fear of Linux making them dependent on a small group of "gurus" is going away.

Teresa describes the Trustix admin utilities as "point and click, an almost Apple-like interface." She notes that security patches and other updates updates can be "totally automatic" or can be done manually by sysadmins who have the skills to handle such things themselves and would rather have total control over their systems -- with Trustix or a Trustix reseller like Interpretis, Texum Technology, or DSG.

And, if you want to impress old-line corporate types with your IT product's reliability and trustworthiness, there is nothing better than being able to put this little statement all over your Web site and marketing material: "Trustix is an IBM Business Partner Leader for Linux."

Still, Trustix has its major sales base in Europe, not only because the company is based in Norway, where it was founded in 1997, and didn't hire Teresa to gear up its U.S. sales effort until March 2003, but because Linux seems to be more accepted in Europe (and Asia) on a corporate level than it is in North America. So far.

Linux now has company-wide acceptance

From a corporate sales standpoint, one of the biggest differences Teresa sees between now and five years ago is that Linux is no longer just "geek cool" but is being taken seriously by non-IT executives.

Now, she says, a lot of her conversations with potential clients "...are about cost benefits." And she talks as much with CFOs (chief financial officers) as anyone else, in large part "because information and education about Linux have been great over that last few years, and that's been helping a lot."

Teresa recalls only one minor -- and in the end harmless -- bit of fallout from the SCO brouhaha. "One customer put a temporary hold on Linux purchases because of the SCO letter," she says. "Then they let it go. It was a one-week delay."

Another factor that hasn't yet directly affected Trustix (and, one presumes, other commercial Linux vendors), at least as far as Teresa can tell, is Microsoft's announcement that in the future it plans to beef up its direct sales force and place less emphasis on sales through resellers.

Teresa says, "Most resellers we work with have just as much opportunity to sell Microsoft as Linux, but they are doing more and more with Linux, generally because customers are asking for it."

And, she adds, "We're not really having trouble getting resellers."

Does anyone really need 'commercial' Linux?

This is a huge question not only for Trustix but for all the other companies that are selling licenses for specialized Linux distributions with add-on, usually proprietary, tools or boasting that they provide better support than is available free through newsgroups and IRC channels.

The general answer, from a corporate customer perspective, seems to be, "Yes, we like proprietary-style sales and support channels, and having them available makes Linux more attractive to us."

Teresa readily admits that a skilled sysadmin can easily duplicate Trustix's functionality for free (and can even download Trustix Secure Linux here.)

But in many cases, upper management feels more comfortable buying a packaged product, not only because they may believe they're more secure if there's formal support behind all software their company runs, but also because buying a "packaged" solution can be less expensive than building an inhouse solution.

There is at least some truth to the saying, "Linux is only free (as in beer) if your time is free," and in the corporate world, sysadmin and programmer time is far from free.

This fact -- and it's a fact, not just a saying -- is the basis of Teresa's pitch to Trustix corporate clients. Indeed, it seems to be the basis of almost all successful commercial Linux marketing -- and marketing for almost all commercial software tools built on top of Free and Open Source Software.

This sounds much like the sales track used by proprietary software companies -- except for one huge difference between the proprietary and Open Source worlds that Teresa and other Open Source marketers must keep in mind if they are going to succeed:

When you're competing directly with Free Software, your product had better be truly excellent, not just good enough, if you expect anyone to spend money for it.

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