As a IT contractor I’m enjoying giving my opinion when asked, and sometimes even when I’m not asked; I have the confidence to be open and honest with everyone and want them to know that. Because of this I’ve been getting to do things I otherwise would not have since they would not have known I was interested or experienced in such things. One of the things I was hired for was to setup Apache on Linux to work with their web instances. It’s been fun, and while I’ve used Apache for over 10 years, there’s always new things to learn. Recently they asked for my opinion on ‘support’ options for Apache. Keeping in mind, they already have support for the hardware and support for the Linux distribution, they still think they need another support channel for Apache. To me this a big waste of money and have somewhat made my case to them. While I understand their position that this support is a way to cover themselves if Apache ‘breaks’, the fact that this software is Open Source has to change the way they have traditionally considered support.
Traditionally, proprietary software companies provide paid support for their software, which is a large part of their revenue, and the customer’s continued use of the software incurs the continued fees for support. Having the benefit of inside information of the software, support leaves customers with a ‘black box’ model in terms of how they interact with the software they have ‘bought’, usually with only a manual and a support line to look to for help. Meanwhile, a help-desk or support line employee is generally working a lower-level job position at a software company, with the employees only receiving training on the software and a flowchart of how to guide a user along to address their question. It’s unreasonable to think that they could provide the level of support as users or even developers of open source projects, since they have full access to source code and have generally built, configured and deployed the software in real world situations. With Open Source software, answers and support are freely available on the internet, provided by documentation or by other experienced users who share their knowledge and enjoy helping others as they were helped in the past. These individuals won’t gloss over shortcomings of the software, or hide facts to make the most of the software, they want you to be as successful as they are using the software. While I realize this open type system of mentoring will not make most company executives comfortable, this is merely their own biases that need to change in order to take full advantage of Open Source software. The old arguments of needing support contracts to ‘insulate’ themselves from the responsibility of a software no longer holds true with open source software. Companies must realize the idea of software support has changed, and support for Open Source software does not be something bought from a third party, instead companies need to hire employees who have the knowledge and experience in using the software, and make it their job to support it. True, this is not how it’s always been done, and I think that’s the point as Open Source software is not how it’s always been done either.
As open source becomes more commonplace in the corporate world its change will be felt in many ways. It’s time for companies to realize what kind of expertise is going to make best use of this new technology; a third party with a bottom line to consider, or software engineers with the skills and abilities previously unattainable by the average computer user. Let them take on the job to support the software, they will know more about it, they will be more open to additional functionality, plus since they have more vested in it, they will care more about its success; what more could an employer ask for?