My Linux Don’t Cost a Thing

My Linux Don’t Cost a Thing

A technology parable

Do any of you know the video of the adorable J-Lo crooning down the phone to her beau that her “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” ? Sure you do. What you can’t hear however (cos it was edited out), is the hollow laugh from the poor sap at the other end of the blower, at the notion that getting on base with J-Lo might be, in any sense, “free”. But surely flowers, chocolates, jewellery, restaurants, movies, taxis and (dare I say it) hotel rooms, are all provided gratis to love struck men aren’t they ? Or so my wife tells me. But then all’s fair in love, war and Information Technology, as they (sometimes) say. So pin back your lug-oles, break out the virtual cash – till (the kind that goes “ching !” when you pull the handle) and listen to this tale of a tragic love affair with open source that would be funny if it also didn’t happen to be squarely based on real life.

Some years ago I was working as a TechPM-cum-Bid Consultant-cum-Dogsbody for an IT Services company. They had been hit by the shrinking market in corporate IT in the post Y2K world and were desperate to break into another sector. Higher Education was on their hit list, but there was a problem – we had less footprint than an anorexic ballerina. We needed an in, and we needed it now. A few vino and tapas evenings with some insiders later and the Business Manager, my boss, announced that he had the answer. “I’ve got just two words for you my boy” he said “‘Open Source’. It’s the name of the game there, and the best part is, the OS is free !”. I had four words for him “‘Total Cost of Ownership’, that’s the name of the game everywhere.”

He had a customer, a small HE college, that was looking to put together an online VLE (Virtual Learning Environment), and wanted us to bid to provide the portal, the application, the hosting and the support; and with the dangling carrot of a pipeline including an upgrade to their back office systems in the not-too-distant. He also had the killer app that was going to be the centrepiece; a Linux/ MySQL/PHP affair from a small eurozone company that had wowed the Professors when they saw it at a conference recently. I was put in charge of the bid and told to come back with a costed proposal within a month. On the upside, the budget had six noughts on the end and more to come if we got it right.

From the beginning, the limitations of using open source, especially open source apps, for anything bigger than a small office installation became horribly apparent. The problems began in the data centre. We had no Linux expertise in-house, “no problem” I said, “we’ll recruit” (“ching !”). If only. Say “hands up all MS and AIX certified engineers” and the sky turns dark from the forest of raised arms. Say “hands up all Linux certified engineers” and the scene resembles Tinkerbell Wood after an artillery barrage. I’ll have to train up our own guys (“ching !”). What about OS support then ? Well, you can dive into the online forums and wade through the posts from anonymous online id’s in your own time (“ching !”) or … you can pay Red Hat for professional support (“ching !”) – I thought this was supposed to be free ?

The best was yet to come. The app, which to be fair looked great when I saw it at a demo, had grown from a student project and had been created without bourgeois restrictions like documentation and install scripts. It did however come with a printed invoice whose total added up to twenty grand more than the costs listed. Bug in the accounts system, apparently. “Never heard of Excel then ?” I said to the sales rep, who turned white and crossed himself at the mere mention.

The interview with the supplier’s techs went little better, and descended into a replay of the Python Cheese Shop sketch. “Tech Docs – Nope, Acceptance Test Reports – Nope, Install Docs – Nope, User Manuals – Nope, Install Scripts – Nope, Security Test reports – Nope, Support SLA – nope” So how the hell do we get it onto the server ? We had to ship him and his mates over to the UK for a two week beano at our expense to install it for us and document the damn thing as they went along (“ching !”). “It doesn’t do half of what the customer wants, how do we configure those parts ? – you can’t, we’ll have write new modules for that” (“ching !”).

Running the thing in the test environment was little better. Sure it was great with fifty users, but crank it up to all three thousand of the college’s students, plus god knows how many others out there in webland and watch the thing grind to a halt and the lights in the data centre go dim. “Have to install a PHP optimizer and some extra disk and RAM” said the supplier (“ching !”). We needed a portal / app server for Linux – sure there’s plenty of free, unsupported offering’s out there, but in those days there was only one with pro levels of support and the expertise in house, that ran under Linux and that was Oracle. A fine product, to be sure, but not what I would have chosen for this. The worst part was that we had a preferred portal product in house – but it was Windows only. Had to be Oracle then (“ching !”).

By now you can see where this was going. By my estimate, the choice of an exclusively open source offering added at least 25% to the cost, way over the client’s budget, and lost us the tender. But the tale has a sting in it. For the post – mortem I prepared an alternative plan for what I would have done if left to my own devices. XP for the OS, Plumtree for the Portal, Docent for the VLE and good old Oracle for the Db – all running under Windows and deliverable / supportable at a decent price to professional standards. Something similar was sold to a another client a year later, and the best part …. because it was Windows we followed up by flogging them a state of the art SAP system for their back office.

Moral of this story – the love may free sugar, but nothing else is


By now you no doubt have me pegged as a Microsoft funded corporate slug of the very worst sort. Actually, no (and this despite many begging letters to Steve Ballmer asking for money). In the interests of balance, let me tell you that I recently renewed my acquaintance with Linux and had a very different experience. I acquired an old corporate IBM ThinkPad that needed wiping down before re-use. I had no OS disks and was damned if I was going to pay for a copy of XP. So I downloaded Ubuntu 8 and, thirty minutes later, after the simplest and most trouble free OS install I’ve ever done, I had a fully functioning laptop connected to the net and with Open Office happily reading my MS Word files. And just to prove it, I wrote this article on it. And yes, it didn’t cost a single penny.

Now this, dear friends, is what Linux does best. If the promise of Linux was free software, then let’s make it free. Rather than trying to knock Microsoft of its perch and conquer the corporate world, why not target the masses out there in the developing world without the means to invest in expensive technology. Hell, you might even want to follow my example and recycle old corporate hardware before it hits the skip with the wonderful (yes, I said wonderful) Ubuntu and bring the empowerment that only the net can provide to the disenfranchised masses of the developing world.

Now that’s the kinda love you just can’t buy.

Copyright ©2009 Savereo John