Next Step For Linux: A Services Channel

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As Linux garners more interest among enterprise accounts, the next big challenge for the open-source operating system will be the development of a services channel, industry executives say.

Large OEMs such as IBM, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard, as well as Linux distributors such as Red Hat and Caldera, will provide the bulk of services and support for early adopters of Linux in the enterprise through 2005, but a value-added channel will emerge, according to Mike Tiemann, CTO of Red Hat, Research Triangle Park, N.C.

"Two or three years from now, when companies are deploying 10,000 [Linux machines, there may need to be a channel to provide services on top of that," --Mike Tiemann, CTO, Red Hat

"Two or three years from now, when companies are deploying 10,000 [Linux machines, there may need to be a channel to provide services on top of that," Tiemann said. "But most companies we're dealing with today--the early adopters in the mainstream market--need a direct relationship with the operating system vendor."

Red Hat already has made strides with the solution provider channel. According to the CRN Solution Provider Satisfaction Survey, the percentage of respondents satisfied with Red Hat's channel programs rose from 38 percent in July to 43 percent in October and to 53 percent in December.

IBM and Compaq, which have made hefty investments in Linux and are unveiling Linux server products at LinuxWorld, maintain they are committed to developing their channels to accommodate Linux services demand.

In late August, for example, Compaq and Mitel Networks, an Ottawa-based networking provider, jointly unveiled an SMB solution that combined Mitel's SME Server V5 with ServiceLink software and services with Compaq ProLiant server hardware. Initially intended to be resold by direct marketer PC Connection, the solution is being sold by Compaq channel partners globally and Mitel's reseller partners.

IBM, which plans to roll out an enhanced Linux partner program at its PartnerWorld conference next month, has enlisted the help of services partners such as Mainline Information Systems, Denver Solutions Group, Bynari and Pioneer-Standard Electronics for its zSeries and xSeries Linux servers. Most recently, Big Blue lined up eOne Group, an Omaha, Neb.-based IBM Global Partner, to design the Web infrastructure for the Tommy Hilgifer retail store chain, a new xSeries customer it signed last month.

So far, the list of nationally known Linux-focused development and service companies remains small and includes firms such as Linuxcare, VA Software, Bynari, Starnix, Ideal Technology and Covalent, industry observers say. San Francisco-based Covalent, for one, has made a sold business by providing service and support for the Apache Web server to a roster of clients that includes Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), AT&T, Harvard University, Federal Express and Lucent Technologies.

But even those Linux services players say they are seeing more competition from vendor services arms and other solution providers--at least from a marketing standpoint.

"Right now, the companies that really understand Linux are a fairly select group," said Anthony Awtrey, vice president at Ideal Technology, Melbourne, Fla. "But we are seeing a number of otherwise traditional Microsoft and Novell shops putting Linux as an area of focus in their advertisements and marketing materials."

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