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Linux vendor battle has little impact on the channel

Red Hat, Novell and now Oracle are struggling to be the big dog in enterprise Linux, but it makes little differnce to the channel who comes out on top.

Things have been getting noisy in the world of Linux distributions over the past few months, as vendors make aggressive and sometimes surprising moves to help cash in on the operating system. But the channel isn't paying much attention.

Novell, Inc., maker of SUSE Enterprise Linux, shocked the open-source community in November when it announced a patent agreement with Microsoft Corp.

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That sparked a debate over whether the deal was tantamount to an admission that Linux infringes on Microsoft patents. Microsoft said it was; Novell insisted otherwise.

In early October Oracle, Inc. announced its entry with Unbreakable Linux, a clone of Red Hat which it plans to support at half the price that Red Hat charges.

For the channel, though, it's just business as usual. For some companies, especially those with a hardware focus, the specific flavor of Linux doesn't matter much. Even for those to whom it does matter, the major vendors' struggles have had little impact.

"It doesn't affect our business much," said Matthew Mossbarger, chief operating officer at Synapse Data and Telecom Inc., a Ogden, Utah-based systems integrator. "We don't really have a preference. Linux is Linux... We just do basically what the customer wants," he said.

Synapse Data makes the bulk of its money servicing clients' systems, and a given fix takes about the same amount of time regardless of the flavor of Linux involved, he said.

The one benefit the channel is getting from all the commotion is that Oracle's Linux offering will help drive sales for customers who need the company's high-end database, said Paul Davis, strategic alliances manager at Sirius Computer Solutions, Inc., a San Antonio-based systems integrator.

"I think what Oracle has done is create a larger awareness of what Linux can do by offering support for it," he said. "It'll increase sales."

Sirius offers all three of the major enterprise Linux distributions. Davis said his company does not favor one or the other – it goes with what the customer already has or wants, or helps the customer choose the specific implementation that works best for the application at hand.

Distributions do make a big difference to Bob Brentson, owner and president of Penfield, N.Y.-based InTech Solutions of Western NY, Inc., an IT consulting and training firm.

But Brentson, who works mostly with Novell's SUSE Linux, said competition among the vendors hasn't yet affected his business.

InTech Solutions' main business is in training and support, and Brentson said that Red Hat just doesn't have a channel program in place for that. He once tried to teach SUSE to Red Hat users, but differences between the distributions, such as their graphical configuration tools, caused problems.

"It's really a shame that Red Hat doesn't have a training partner channel program, because there are customers who do ask us to teach them [Red Hat] Linux, and unfortunately we have to tell them that the only way they can do that is to go directly to Red Hat," which only holds training sessions in major cities, he said.

How much business are they realistically going to lose because someone wants to run Ubuntu?
Gordon Haff
AnalystIlluminata, Inc.
While Red Hat has good name recognition that would make it easy to promote, "unless a vendor is willing to work in a channel program, clearly I'm not going to give my customers to them," Brentson said.

That may change, though. Troy Webb -- chief marketing officer and managing partner at Morrisville, N.C.-based InCentric Solutions, LLC, which works almost entirely with Red Hat -- thinks Red Hat will build up a good channel program soon, including referrals for clients in the small and midsized business (SMB) spectrum.

Webb used to work with Novell's distribution but was unsatisfied with the company's support on the field. With Red Hat, he said, InCentric takes care of on-site calls and lets Red Hat deal with phone support. Webb said he has faith in Red Hat's quality of support and that he is not afraid that Oracle's version of the operating system will disrupt his business.

From end-users' perspectives, one of the biggest factors in picking a distribution is which independent software vendors (ISVs) support it, said Gordon Haff, analyst at Illuminata, Inc., a Nashua, N.H.-based research firm. When customers run into trouble with a piece of software and call the company's support line, he said, the last thing they want to hear is that their operating system isn't supported.

Although Oracle is in a unique position to certify its own software to run on its Unbreakable Linux, Haff said, most developers will only bother supporting a small number of distributions. Which ones they do support will have a bearing on the balance of power for distributions in the enterprise market.

"It costs money for ISVs [to support distributions], and at the end of the day, particularly in the case of larger ISVs – SAP, IBM, Microsoft and so forth – they can simply say, 'We support Novell [SUSE] and Red Hat.' How much business are they realistically going to lose because someone wants to run Ubuntu?" he said.

Several channel companies said that most customers who ask about Linux don't know much about different distributions, and those who do usually stick to the distribution they already have.

"Most of the distributions have a cult following type of thing," said Joe Volodarsky, president of AmNet Computers LLC, a system integrator based in Baltimore. "I have a few customers who use Debian, and I can't get them to budge to use Red Hat or Red Hat-based distros."

He said that many of his customers go for either Red Hat or one of its free variants, especially CentOS.

"From a support point of view, they're pretty much the same," he said. "Often when they do buy a Red Hat system, they go to Red Hat for support, and if that doesn't work, they go to me."

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