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In Search Of Open-Source Experts

Applied Industrial Technologies Inc., a distributor of fluid-power and engineered products, runs most of its infrastructure on Microsoft Windows. But two years ago Applied Industrial began running some Web, file, application, and directory servers on the open-source operating system Red Hat Linux. "Our technicians [were] saying, 'we need to have Linux servers in place--we could pull down costs,'" says IT director Bob Falkowski. "We changed out hardware, introduced new software components. But what we failed to realize is, when you do this type of process there's some added burden. You have to fall back on yourself as being the ultimate solution provider when things don't work."

Applied Industrial Technologies isn't the only company to be caught short by the effort and expertise required to support an increasing number of open-source projects. Companies often look at the bright side of deploying Linux and other open-source systems--the cost savings, the standardization, the freedom from vendor lock-in--but aren't well-enough prepared for the challenges that come with implementing or expanding the use of technology that's still in the early stages of development.

It was no surprise when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer issued a memo last month asserting that Windows computing environments offer, among other advantages, a lower cost of ownership than Linux and open-source systems. What may be surprising is the correlation between Ballmer's claims and many companies' real-world experiences. Not only did Ballmer point to independent analysts' reports to bolster his case, but there's growing evidence that many companies are running into unexpected costs, especially in connection with implementation and support, when trying out or switching to open-source systems. Even the costs of signing on with an IT vendor to support open-source deployments may cut into their estimated cost savings.

"It was a learning experience for us," admits Applied Industrial's Falkowski. The company now is "going through the painful process of developing the know-how," he says, with a big focus on retraining staff. Applied Industrial won't disclose how much it has invested in efforts to ramp up open-source expertise, but it has negotiated Linux training from IBM as part of a contract to replace its Tomcat open-source Java servlet and JavaServer Pages with IBM WebSphere. "We looked at the positive aspect too heavily and didn't look at the negative aspects enough."

One of the chief complaints of CIOs and CEOs is that they can't find enough qualified open-source programmers, says Faber Fedor, an open-source consultant with services firm Linux NJ.com Inc. "I don't think there are enough experienced people out there for the demand," he says. Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio agrees. "There's a dearth of skilled Linux administrators, by comparison to the more-mature Windows, Unix, NetWare, and Macintosh environments," she says. And what happens when too much demand meets too little supply? "They can command a premium," DiDio says. "They get a 20% to 30% salary premium in the large metropolitan markets."

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