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How to make money selling open source network solutions

Despite being traditionally thought of as a free alternative to big market software, open source is not free. Learn how systems integrators can use their expertise to help customers apply that software more efficiently and effectively.

Uh, did we get the title wrong? Open source is free, right? As a systems integrator, is it not an oxymoron making money by offering free software? Time to back up. First of all, open source is not free. As clearly stated in the GNU Web site, free software is a "matter of liberty, not price." It's not free from cost, but free from restrictions such as the ability to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. The GNU Project (GNU is an acronym for "GNU's Not Unix" and is pronounced "guh-noo") was launched in 1984 to develop a complete Unix-like operating system that is free software. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is the principal organizational sponsor of the GNU Project. The GNU project supports the FSF's mission to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify and redistribute computer software, and to defend the rights of Free Software users.

You already know that you cannot freely make copies of Microsoft Word and put them on whatever computers you desire. With open source solutions, you can. What does that mean to you? Perhaps the biggest selling point to selling open source solutions is that you can improve the product on your own and either bundle it with other software that you have developed or distribute it out-right under your name with enhanced support and/or service. Imagine adding some macros and/or other functionality to Microsoft Word and then selling it. Attorneys from Microsoft would be banging down your door quicker then you could say Vista.

So, how can channel professionals make money selling open source network solutions? Most IT folk think of LAMP when they think open source. LAMP, short for Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (all open source applications), has become the de facto development standard in the industry. Apache itself owns roughly 70% of the Web server market, much higher then Microsoft IIS or other commercial products. The success of these and tons of other apps pretty much speak for itself in terms of the success of the open source model.

Now that you understand the popularity of open source apps and their potential to make you money, let's talk about network management. The most popular open source software network management tools include OpenNMS and Nagios. We'll focus on OpenNMS, the first enterprise-grade network management platform developed using the open source model. OpenNMS is essentially a community of programmers and network management professionals who tired of the status-quo commercial solutions and decided that they wanted to create something themselves, which could possibly replace expensive commercial solutions such as Hewlett-Packard's OpenView, IBM's Tivoli and Micromuse's Netcool. OpenNMS is available for free and is released under the GNU General Public License. As a VAR, the way that you make money from a tool like this, is to either become a certified partner or to enhance and support their products. Matrix Corporation became the first OpenNMS Certified Partner in 2005.

JBOSS, which is a member of The OpenNMS Group, provides customer-focused network management consulting and support with an emphasis on solutions using open source. How does the model work? OpenNMS can provide huge advantages to the enterprise, but it can be somewhat scary to do it alone. What the OpenNMS Group does is provide commercial-grade support, services, training and custom development from many of the same people who brought you the application. So customers get all the advantages of a commercial application (including a high level of support and professional services) coupled with the power of open source, such as rapid customization and robust code, at a considerable cost savings.

The OpenNMS Group is clearly not a software company, because they don't sell software. This is one case where open source really means free. To reiterate, what the group and its partners do is sell customers their time. The commercial network management vendors tell their partners that for every dollar spent on software, approximately seven times that is spent on services. The OpenNMS Group takes the lead in maintaining the software and is the go-to expert with the experience, tools and ability to save their clients money -- which is a great way for them to make money. This is a perfect example of a model of how to make money selling open source network solutions. One can enhance and provide service and/or support for OpenNMS as a value added systems integrator of open source solutions. This is just one small example; really the possibilities are endless, and only depend on the creativity and innovators at your company.

About the author
Ken Milberg is the founder of Unix-Linux Solutions. He is also a board member of Unigroup of NY, the oldest Unix users group in NYC. Ken regularly answers user questions on Unix and Linux interoperability issues as a site expert on

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