As LAMP use grows, open source partners are in the spotlight

Open source partners can now command a pay premium over partners specializing in proprietary software.

The good news for partners in open source is that people with PHP, Ruby or other open source expertise can command a premium price, according to recent research.

Traditional thinking held that because the license fees in the open source world are comparatively low, companies could also scrimp on spending for implementation and consulting help. But that is not the case, according to Michael Kirven, co-founder and principal of Bluewolf Consulting, a New York-based IT consultancy.

"What companies are finding is there's no way to hide from the cost of good IT. You either pay in the platform or you pay in the personnel," Kirven said.

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That means open source partners are in high demand.

Mike Vertal, CEO of Rivet Logic Corp., Reston, Virg., an open source-focused solution provider said his company does a brisk business in Alfresco, JBoss, Mulesource, and MySQL work.

Obviously most of the clients who approach partners like Rivet Logic know what open source is about and don't need to be sold on the merits of the technology up front. And that is one thing that has changed in the last several years.

"When it comes to companies like us, customers typically have a project that requires deep expertise, they want someone who's done it before and we have experience with top-tier clients in a large number of projects," Vertal noted.

The market for PHP and Ruby on Rails expertise is very hot, according to Kirven. In fact, experts in any of the Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP (LAMP) stack layers are hot sellers now. It is conceivable that a very strong MySQL expert could command more money than an equally strong Microsoft SQL Server professional, he noted.

That's the good news. The bad news for open source partners, according to IDC analyst Matt Lawton, is that one of the biggest constraints on continued open source adoption is a lack of talent-for-hire to implement and support open source solutions. In short: A talent shortage is driving prices up but may harm overall pickup of the technology.

"For open source software to penetrate beyond the early adopter phase and beyond the less mission-critical applications, companies will need the level of support that service companies typically provide in the proprietary software world," said Lawton, director of IDC's open source software business.

According to IDC's recently released "2007 Industry Adoption of Open Source Software" study, open source projects are significant initiatives in most of the responding organizations. But the huge hole in that story is the lack of third-party service providers with expertise in open source software.

Hot opportunities for open source partners

Now this is a great thing for open source partners with the requisite skills. Jordan Rosen, CEO of Albany-based Lille Corp., an IT services provider specializing in the open source world, couldn't be happier.

"The use of open source is clearly on the rise. People now understand what the term means and know enough to ask about it," Rosen said. "Open source software is very well-documented, there are tremendous support resources on the Web and an IT staff can absolutely do this in-house if they want to, but it then becomes a question of if they have the time to do it or if it makes sense for them to do it."

Rosen gives the lie to the myth that open source equals free, which is one of Microsoft's prime arguments. "There is nothing free about it. What you may not pay for in licenses you will pay for elsewhere."

Rosen foresees a wealth of opportunity for savvy open source partners who want to make the leap into managed services where they can backstop and support open source infrastructure for customers. The very nature of the OSS world requires a willingness to work with many outside technology providers and partners, he noted. In his view, value-added resellers (VARs) who are wedded to Microsoft's integrated stack are in a different world.

Bill Stewart, founder of Free Open Source Solutions, an Ottawa-based Linux specialist, has seen the universe of his potential customers explode in recent years.

"Five years ago, if you said you were using open source, people would say 'What's that?' Now everyone is using some open source, whether it's Samba linking Windows to Linux … or Apache," Stewart said. "I would bet that even MCSEs [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers] are now running some form of Linux at home so they can be knowledgeable about it."

Indeed, even parts of Microsoft itself are trying to forge better interoperability between Microsoft's stack and the open source world -- at least when it comes to getting software rooted in open source to run on Windows.

Matt Asay, general manager of Americas for Alfresco, an open-source-oriented content management software provider, said his company relies very heavily on partners for customer implementations. The great partner story there is that money saved on software licenses often flows to partners with expertise in writing custom applications or providing vertical know-how.

He and other open source partisans decry Microsoft's integrated stack message as so much hot air.

"You can believe them if you want to until you actually have to do a SharePoint implementation," Asay said. He referenced a large law firm (which he would not name) that had to shut down all of its other IT projects in order to deploy SharePoint Server. "They had issues getting it to work with Outlook and Office -- both Microsoft products," he maintained.

Asay's bias is well-documented, but even some Microsoft VAR partners say privately that getting the various layers of Microsoft's stack to work together seamlessly can be a chore. And ensuring continued seamlessness requires updates to most layers of the stack when one layer has been updated.

Of course, if open source partners are getting better money than their Microsoft-oriented counterparts in the field, it may just be a matter of supply and demand and therefore something that will change over time.

Microsoft has been building its channel of VARs and solution provider partners for years. The sheer number means that any premium that a Microsoft infrastructure partner can command has been eroded.

And that means if the number of open source partners rises over time, their pay advantage will decline as well.

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