October 4, 2005

UK open source consultancy provides services for free

Author: Tina Gasperson

OpenAdvantage is an IT consultancy based in the West Midlands region of the United Kingdom. As the name suggests, OpenAdvantage deals strictly in open source software solutions, providing its clients with everything from a basic introduction to open source, to custom development services. The best part? It's all free -- free as in beer.

The United Kingdom is divided into nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) for the purpose of local economic development and regeneration. Each RDA receives a budget with which to fund programs and initiatives that it determines will enhance that region's economy and infrastructure. Advantage West Midlands, the RDA under whose jurisdiction OpenAdvantage falls, has furnished OpenAdvantage with enough money to enable the company to provide all of its services gratis to businesses within the region.

"We're here to help West Midlands businesses better themselves by using open source," says Paul Cooper, assistant director and co-founder of OpenAdvantage.

Cooper and his friend Scott Thompson attended college together and made money by developing Web software for both the college and outside customers. "Everything we delivered was based on open source tools," Cooper says. "Unfortunately, we found that when we did sales presentations, we were spending the first half hour explaining what open source was.

"Maybe it was just our lack of skill as salesmen. However, we thought wouldn't it be nice if there was an organization that would spread the word about open source, so at those sales presentations they'd go, 'open source, no problem,' and we could move on to why we were good."

Cooper says that while pure volunteer evangelism is good, there's "nothing to back it up." On the other hand, a funded agency like OpenAdvantage has the resources to help businesses actually get started. So, three and half years ago Cooper and Thompson set out to provide those resources.

While the road to success hasn't been without bumps, Cooper says it's going very well now. "In some respects, the demand [for services] is overwhelming and we have a lot of work to do just to keep up with the interest," he says. "For certain things, like Web development, PHP, Mambo, and Plone, there's a huge amount of interest. Anytime we announce a training course or fast track based on those subjects or Linux system administration, typically it is over-subscribed."

Yet, and this is no surprise, Cooper still hasn't seen a huge amount of institutional adoption of Linux on the desktop. "We see it on an individual basis, mostly for developers, and we've seen people talking about pilots, but very few are actually going out and biting the bullet."

Why? Cooper doesn't blame it on the operating system, but on human nature. "People are getting familiar with Linux on the system admin side. But when they've been dealing with Microsoft for 10 or more years, and they have some knowledge built up there, it's a big thing for them to overcome. It's the same issues and concerns as when you're going to switch from Windows to Mac."

Cooper says that as far as he knows, OpenAdvantage is unique. "We like to think that's because West Midlands is the leader in open source in the UK. One of the things that's nice is that there are a number of companies here doing pioneering work with open source."

OpenAdvantage hosts a demo lab with 10 servers, where interested companies can experiment with software and system setups, running CRM packages or content management software like Mambo or Plone. "One of the ways we help people is to try and make things as easy as possible. We do the grunt work of setting it up so they can try it," Cooper says.

His advice to others who may be thinking of following in OpenAdvantage's footsteps is "it's gotta be something you want to do." Cooper says patience is the key, because it could take a long time to get funding from the UK government. "We came up with the idea toward the end of 2001 and we didn't get approval for the funding until March 2003 -- then we didn't actually get started until January 2004. If you have to wait to do something for that long, it's got to be something you want to do, otherwise you'll get bored. Maybe in other countries things are a bit more streamlined."

Proper framing of your sales pitch is important when dealing with government agencies that are always more concerned with the economic impact of things than the ethical reasons for their existence, says Cooper. "They don't care that open source produces better software or does things quicker."

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