By Matthew McKenzie


For IT decision makers in small and midsize businesses, Linux is all about having choices -- and all about making choices. That includes sifting through a seemingly endless list of distros, weighing a variety of service and support options, and selecting the most appropriate software for your company's business needs.

There is no silver bullet for picking the right Linux distro or choosing the most appropriate software and support options. That said, it is possible to make these tasks more manageable by categorizing the leading Linux distros and the types of support that are available to business Linux users.

Distro Decisions
Hundreds of Linux distros are currently available. Many are designed for general-purpose desktop use; others are stripped-down models intended to run servers, while still others are tailored for use as system rescue disks, data restoration, or other specialized tasks.

Most companies, however, will want to pick a mature, respected Linux distro with a solid track record. As a rule, these distros fall into one of three categories. Two of these categories involve Linux distros that are associated, in different ways, with a specific corporate backer; the third category includes community-developed Linux distros that have stood the test of time and enjoy a stellar reputation among business IT users.

  • Subscription-Based Offerings
    Companies such as Red Hat, Novell, Xandros, and Mandriva charge subscription fees that include software updates, documentation, and technical support. These fees vary quite a bit, based upon the type and number of Linux systems: For a one-year subscription for a Red Hat server OS, for example, you'll pay from around $350 to more than $2,500, depending on the product and level of technical support provided.

    Linux users looking for a free ride can still find it: All of these companies' Linux distros also are available as free, community-supported versions. In fact, the code contributed to distros like Fedora (the free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux) or OpenSUSE (the free version of Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) often makes its way into new versions of these companies' commercial Linux releases. For companies with stringent support and service needs, however, including many larger enterprises, the subscription-based model allows them to manage the cost, complexity, and risk of a move from Windows to Linux.
  • The Ubuntu Linux Option
    Over the past few years, Ubuntu Linux has emerged from relative obscurity to join the top tier of business Linux options. Like Red Hat, SUSE, and other subscription-based distros, Ubuntu has the backing of a single, well-funded, for-profit company: Canonical.

    Yet Canonical's business model differs from its competitors in one key area: Both its desktop and server editions of Ubuntu Linux are available completely free of charge. Instead, Canonical earns revenue providing paid technical support, training and certification, migration assistance, and other custom services to businesses that require them. Many companies find this model preferable to subscription-based Linux options, as it allows them to minimize their up-front deployment costs without giving up the ability to turn to a single, authoritative source of service and technical support when they need it.
  • Community-Maintained Linux Distros
    Like most open-source software, Linux owes its very existence to a community of volunteer contributors. Mature, highly regarded distros such as Debian and Knoppix continue to thrive today, even though they're not associated with a single corporate shepherd (such as Ubuntu) or a related commercial Linux distro (such as Red Hat or SUSE Linux).

Many companies find that community-supported distros provide everything they need -- and they often repay the favor by contributing bug fixes or additional code back to the Linux community. Companies that choose these distros, however, tend to be more self-reliant when it comes to service and support; while many Linux users find free, community-based support that meets their needs, there are no guarantees this will always be the case.

There are no hard and fast rules for deciding which type of Linux distro will work best for your business. Lately, Ubuntu has worked hard to position itself as a good choice for smaller companies that want to minimize their up-front costs without sacrificing the ability to get professional service and support when they need it. Yet subscription-based distros are a solid choice for companies that expect to rely heavily upon a vendor's service and support offerings; they may also provide a good safety net for IT departments that need to "sell" a Linux deployment to risk-averse non-IT decision-makers.

Exploring The Linux Support System

Some business decision-makers still worry that moving to Linux means living with hit-or-miss technical support. In fact, adopting Linux can dramatically improve both the quantity and quality of a company's support options.

What makes the Linux support system so robust? It boils down to three key factors:

  1. Linux distributors rely heavily -- or in some cases entirely -- upon their ability to earn revenue providing service and technical support to their users. Proprietary software vendors, on the other hand, typically regard technical support as a cost center. While this does not guarantee that a proprietary vendor will provide inferior technical support, it doesn't exactly give them an incentive to provide superior support, either.
  2. Linux, like all open-source software, offers a much lower barrier to entry for third-party service and support providers than proprietary software does. In fact, the only meaningful "barriers to entry" for an open-source support provider are its technical abilities and customer service skills. Proprietary software vendors, on the other hand, are typically either the sole source for professional support, or they maintain control over a network of third-party support providers.
  3. Many Linux users, including businesses, are able to rely upon free, community-based resources to handle routine technical support, troubleshooting, and even documentation needs. While paid support options are still available, this approach allows companies to use them only when it is absolutely necessary. These resources also ensure that a company's ability to find technical support doesn't depend upon a single vendor's willingness to continue providing such support.

Smaller businesses have a lot to gain from this approach to Linux service and support: If a company doesn't like the support it is getting from one Linux support provider, it can simply take its business elsewhere. In addition to improving the quality of commercial Linux and open-source technical support, this model also encourages service providers to keep their prices competitive -- a radical departure for companies forced to live with single-source software procurement policies.

In order to take advantage of these benefits, however, you need to focus on two tasks. First, you need to have at least a rough idea of your business' service and support needs before committing to a Linux deployment. Second, you need to line up the appropriate level of support to meet those needs, either by choosing a subscription-based Linux distro with built-in support commitments, evaluating third-party commercial support options, or simply doing some research on the quality and quantity of free online or community-based support.

Matthew McKenzie is an Athens, Ga.-based freelance journalist who has covered open-source software and other business IT issues for more than a decade. He has worked as an editor and contributor for leading industry publications including CNET, PC World, InformationWeek, and Computerworld.com.

Defining The Distro
Strictly speaking, a Linux distro is a lot more than just Linux. By itself, the Linux kernel isn't very useful; it requires a supporting cast that may include any number of utilities and third-party software offerings. These run the gamut from command-line tools associated with even the most stripped-down Linux system, to enterprise-class server applications, to the familiar desktop tools that every PC user today takes for granted.

In addition, some (but not all) distros are tailored for use primarily as either a server or as a desktop system. Besides various tweaks to each type of system's Linux kernel, a server distro may ship with lots of (surprise!) server apps but no graphical desktop environment, while a desktop distro will ship with a bundled desktop GUI, a Web browser, business productivity tools, and all sorts of additional software.

There are two lessons to take away from these differences. First, don't assume too much about which applications a particular Linux distro might install by default; it's a simple matter to check out the list of software that ships with a particular distro before you pick it. Second, understand that there are often important differences in distros optimized for server versus desktop use.