There are lots of commercial and free versions of Linux available for integration in a Windows enterprise. Each Linux option comes with its own support mechanisms and issues for Windows IT managers to consider.
If you choose multiple Linux distributions -- one for the servers, one for desktops and one for specialty machines -- you could be juggling multiple and completely different kinds of support levels and technical issues. The bugs that one distributor fixes in one distribution, for example, may be untouched in another. This is going to create headaches and add time to your workday.
The known: A Microsoft support process
Today, most enterprises rely on some kind of support from Microsoft. Microsoft's array of options range from technicians in field offices, Web resources, newsgroup support, volunteer MVPs, Microsoft-sponsored (and third-party) conferences, phone support and Product Support Services (PSS). Whatever your commitment is to Microsoft support, it's a good bet you have some kind of codified "process" in house for when things go wrong.
Usually, your first-level technicians give the problem a whack. When it's necessary, they'll defer to second- and third-level technicians and on to architects. All along the way, the in-house technicians are scouring technical databases and online community forums and asking their peers for the answer. If the problem is still too great, then they finally call the Microsoft "cavalry."
Now, imagine that same problem occurring after you integrate Linux into your environment. It's at that point in problem resolution that you'll come face to face with your decision about how much Linux-specific support you actually need and have. Are you comfortable only with community-based support? Many Linux distributions come only with community-based support. If an emergency strikes, will community-based support be enough for you?
Microsoft, on the other hand, makes Windows support an incremental choice. That is, you decide how much security you want to pay for along with the software license. As you go down the path with Linux, you'll want to make sure you are as comfortable with your Linux support as you are with your support from Microsoft.
In my experience, if the path you seek is an integrated Windows and Linux environment, Microsoft support in this area is very good. Microsoft has free Services for a Unix 3.5 (SFU 3.5) download. If you need help with the product, there is excellent newsgroup support and pay-as-you-go PSS support. Of course, Microsoft's expertise will be with the SFU 3.5 product. But in integration cases, I have found that Microsoft makes an effort to go the extra mile to help with whatever the integration scenario is, when it's possible.
Next stop: Hardware vendors
Another avenue for support is through hardware vendors. Some top-tier vendors specialize in selling hardware geared for Linux. Dell Inc. is getting better, but Hewlett-Packard Co. is at the top. Smaller companies, like EmperorLinux Inc., sell laptops pre-loaded with Linux and offer support contracts for when the chips are down. However, in all cases, be sure to ask (and verify) that the company will support Linux in the system you're ordering once the sale is complete. And don't ignore device and hardware support, such as drivers, to run your network card, your wireless card, your laptop's touchpad and sound card or a server's RAID array.
Every once in a while, companies spring up and offer custom Linux support. Levanta, formerly Linuxcare, is one that initially provided just that. But today the company sells its own software for Linux configuration management, provisioning and software deployment across commodity hardware, blades, virtual machines and mainframes. Other organizations have stepped up to fill the support niche -- Progeny is one example. But finding a company that can handle your particular distribution can be tough. Novell Inc. offers support for its SuSE line of software, Red Hat Inc. for its. IBM and HP also have Linux support. However, the professional services folks at IBM and HP may or may not provide support for the specific distribution you're rolling out.
As a result, many businesses are simply seeking -- and paying for -- support from local consulting companies on Linux issues their own staffs cannot handle. If you're a national or global company, the challenge is to find a Linux consultant who can help you across all your field offices.
In all, the issue of Linux support is one that should not be readily dismissed. At this point, you'll likely not find the same level of support for Linux as you are accustomed to receiving from Microsoft. On the other hand, if your Linux support needs are modest, there are myriad options. The secret is to put support policies and mechanisms in place before integration troubles begin.
This is the second in an occasional article about Windows and Linux integration by Jeremy Moskowitz. Click for part one, Adding Linux to your network: Which flavor do you want?