Knowledge Free Support Centers vs. Commercially Supported Open Source

I have heard more than once in the past year how IT is realizing how important people are to the success of projects.   We are hearing this from peers, consultants and vendors.  What a great trend.  However,  I am also in the business of writing POs for licensing and services to many of these same vendors who are on the bandwagon acknowledging the importance of people.  I do see a few improvements in services here and there, but overall I cannot say things are not improving in the commercial software arena.   The bottom line is commercial software companies are beholden to shareholders and although all the right things are being said the reality of the situation is usually still the same.  You pay and we’ll help you in the same way we have always done.   Where does that leave the cash-strapped IT organization who is being asked to retrieve blood from a turnip?   

Open

We are still subject to Low Information Support Contracts and Knowledge Free Support Centers.   High licensing costs,  marginal services and declining enrollments are set to make a major impact on how higher education is delivered in the United States.   IT is at the front of the pack in being asked to to solve some of these problems.   When I think of this I always think of a comment Sid Hudson, long time Vice Chancellor for Legislative Relations for the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education made to the  Oklahoma Council for Information Technology shortly before his retirement in 2009.  

IT is in a better position to save money for institutions of Higher Ed than any other organizational area in higher education.

I believe this true.  The expanding demand for technology services in combination with flat or declining budgets is arguably the greatest core challenge facing education information technology ( IT) during the next few years.

This leads me to an update of my thoughts on why the open source model of software distribution in conjunction with a well thought out support model bodes well for those willing to take a strategic risk for their institution.    A few years ago I also heard one of the most important questions ever asked about open source for the enterprise.   Patrick Masson of UMass Online during his Moodle presentation at the Austin Texas MoodleMoot a few years ago asked,

Who do you call at 2:00am?

Since we were at a Moodle gathering he was of course talking about Moodle, but what a relevant and powerful question for those who believe in open source.  This is a question functional users, administrators, and gear heads want answered when the discussion of open source deployment comes up. This is certainly one key area in strong community and open source projects that is still misunderstood outside of strong commercially support open source projects. So is how support for those projects provided and how does it compare?

It appears to me that in quality open source projects you have twice as many options as you do in a proprietary vendor provided solution.  In a proprietary environment,
you have redundant options which are….to pay and pay again.   Well-designed communities such as Moodle & Kuali give you both the project community and commercial providers as options.

Example number one in the commercially supported open source world is Red Hat.  In 2001 Paul Cormier joined Red Hat and began looking at the companies business model.  A couple short years later Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) hit the market.  Prior to this Red was being sold for about $30 but was the same as the product that could be downloaded for free.   The new model was sold through a subscription including updates, patches, and bug fixes. The companies open source ideals were in place but they also wanted to build a multi-billion dollar business. It appears it has really worked out for them as according to 2013 client data more than 90% of the Fortune 500 companies utilize RHEL.  

In RHEL the actual finished product cost money while at the same time source code is freely available under the GPL (GNU General Public License) for those who want to compile it themselves.   Red Hat charges a premium for RHEL which comes with all the guarantees, patches and a few interesting benefits such assistance with lawsuits related to using Red Hat software. Patent trolls sometimes target Red Hat customers directly, and Red Hat generally takes those cases over and sometimes pays to settle as in the 2011 Acacia instance.  

When I first got engaged in the Moodle community my institution was still running WebCT as the learning management system. There were multiple times we submitted questions to the WebCT technical support group for which we were paying a support agreement and to the Moodle community forums for our Moodle environment in a similar timeframe.   I can’t think of a single time we received answers to our questions from our paid support for WebCT faster than we received answers from the community supporting Moodle.  This is when I began to sit up and pay attention.  Free support was faster from the community than from the knowledge free call center.

Pat Burns VP for Information Services at Colorado State University relates a similar experience to the Chronicle of Higher Education about their deployment of Kuali Financial Systems.  He indicates that when When answers are needed Colorado State staffers e-mail the group of other Kuali users with problems and generally two or three answers typically come back in minutes.

This he contrasts that with setting up commercial software:

  1. You call up your vendor project manager with the problem, who is charging you a monthly fee.
  2. That project manager schedules a phone call with the person you need to speak with inside the company, he says, perhaps in the next week or two.
  3. Half the time it’s not the right person, but you pay them on a meter anyway.
  4. Then they decide they need to come to campus—in six weeks

This brings me back to some thoughts on strategic risk.  If you choose to follow an open source path you must believe:

An engaged enthusiastic community of members whose jobs are often on the line in conjunction with a healthy ecosystem of commercial affiliates is a better strategic risk than relying on very expensive support contracts from understaffed proprietary support teams forcing you to:

1)  Buy Low Information Support Contracts

2)  Call into Knowledge Free Support Centers

The Commercial Part of Open Source

Although I would give the nod to Red Hat as the likely originator of the a great business model built around open source, each of my favorite open source projects below  has a solid but different support model.

  • Kuali Commercial Affiliates with Kuali,  
  • Moodle partners with Moodle,
  • Digium Switchvox with certified resellers with Asterisk

Here are some examples of how support is offered in large open or community source communities.

Moodle Partners are certified service providers worldwide which help with Moodle implementations.  They provide services such as hosting, customization, support, training and even full management of a Moodle project. Partners contribute 10% of their earnings to the Moodle foundation to support the development and maintenance of the Moodle project

The Kuali Commercial Affiliates (KCA) program provides an ecosystem of services for delivering Kuali software systems. While the  Kuali Foundation ensures open source software is available, it does not provide planning, implementation, hosting, SaaS in the cloud, and support services. These services can be provided by Kuali Commercial Affiliates who have built a business model around some or all of these types of services.  We have used KCA Vivantech for our foray into the Kuali world but the most recent Kuali Days shows a growing ecosystem.  Kplus2 was introduced as a new KCA joining Vivantech, rSmart, Moderas OpenCollab and others.  Finally, I would suggest a thriving commercial support ecosystem of a growing projects is enhanced when a global community is developing,  OpenCollab, a South African KCA provides an example of the rapid growth and reach of a health open source support model.   

The Asterisk open source phone system has a commercial model which is still a little different.  Digium is the business built around a commercial deployment of Asterisk by the founders of Asterisk.  They license a series of commercial resellers who support and implement this particular system.  This is not quite the same as Moodle and Kuali with a direct tie to the open source version but certainly the derivative is closely related to Asterisk.   A successful deployment at Sam Houston State University of 6000 VoIP phones running Asterisk turned into a failed deployment in 2009 when they had to move back to a proprietary Cisco solution after losing key staff with Asterisk specific knowledge who were instrumental to the 2006 deployment.  Would the outcome have been different using Digium the commercially supported version?  I would suggest yes. We successfully deployed a 250 phone  Digium solution at my previous institution in 2011.   I am currently in the middle of a 600ish VoIP phone deployment based on the Digium solution at my current institution Casper College.    I believe having the commercial support of a Digium reseller is a strategic risk worth taking as we will drive out recurring costs to near zero.  It also helps that the initial cost of the system allows us to actually take on this project.  The initial cost of a Cisco VoIP solution was simply out of reach.

Business models are not just being built around core applications mentioned in this post.  You are also seeing commercial support for applications such as the e-portfolio tool Mahara and their Mahara partner program.  As solid business models are built around open/community source software projects such as Kuali and Moodle these projects may become more legitimate in the eyes of organizational decision makers.   Multiple large and successful open source projects with sound and sustainable business models  provide a sound answer to the question  “Who do we call at 2:00 am?”  

Continued business model innovation in the open source world helps bring validity to the entire open/ community source movement. It also allows us to show to our institutional leaders how the strategic risk of deploying open source solutions can transform an institution.   Boy……I could have used this post in 2004!

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