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Tech Support for Free and Open-Source Software

Lori Halley 20 August 2008 0 comments

This is the third part of our series on free and open-source software and the resources to help your organization make the most of what FOSS has to offer.

When you need to know the meaning of a word, you flip open a dictionary. It’s a trusted authority. It gives the information you need to use an essential tool (language) more effectively.  Wouldn’t it be great if support for free and open-source software (FOSS) was just that easy?

Users of open-source software — and particularly those users without advanced technical knowledge or skills — often need help to download and install FOSS; to customize it; to use it effectively; and to troubleshoot, upgrade and maintain it over time.

“As enterprises increase their open source adoption — they have to address how they support that software,” says Kim Weins, senior vice president of product and marketing at OpenLogic. A July 2008 survey by the company found that

… enterprise users of open source software have been accustomed to getting their support directly from the open source community or from their own internal support resources. However, a majority of respondents from larger enterprises saw having a support vendor as important…

Nonprofits have long experience in operating on a shoestring, doing as much as possible in-house to cut costs — one reason why free and open-source software is being adopted more and more often in the nonprofit sector. For similar reasons, the responsibility to keep the technology humming along can easily fall on untrained individuals who happen to have a keen interest in technology -- “accidental techies” in place of dedicated (and probably more expensive) IT specialists.

If you’re the “accidental techy” for your organization, you can go a long way with support provided by other users in the open-source community.

Here are a few places to start looking for help. (You’ll probably have other resources to add to this short list — so please, feel free to share your tips in the comment section, below.)

  • It may seem obvious, but the best place to start is usually at the software’s home website (e.g. Mozilla.org for Firefox and Thurderbird support, and so on).
  • SourceForge.net, the largest FOSS repository online, can help you track down project-specific resources — for example, see the page for Audacity, with a drop-down menu of mailing lists for various support topics related to that software.
  • Don’t overlook the search engines! Sometimes you can find a solution by googling for part of an error message (enclose it within quotation marks to restrict the search to that specific phrase)or the numerical error code, if you’ve received one.
  • Google Groups (browse groups or run a search for the software name, with additional keywords related to your error message or issue) and GetSatisfaction.com (search by Company or Product for relevant threads) seem to be used increasingly by software developers to respond to user support issues.
  • Bug.gd (search by specific error message) is a new resource for sharing known software bugs; it’s still in beta and should continue to improve as the database builds up, and
  • Wikipedia’s list of Free and open source software organizations can direct you to other related communities of interest, where you may be able to track down more support options.

In many cases, finding an answer to your software problem in a forum can be as quick and easy as looking up a word in the dictionary. On other occasions, however, it may take some time to find the information you need — if another user has experienced the same bug, and if they found a reliable solution, and if they posted that solution somewhere online where you can find it…  But when mission-critical software fails and you need it fixed now, who are you going to call?

More than any other aspects of usability, it’s been widely argued, FOSS falls short when it comes to providing support to its users. But, as Martin Michlmayr asks, is there really a lack of support — or is it just a matter of perception?

There are a lot of FOSS related support options these days. Big vendors, like IBM, HP and Red Hat, will be happy to provide support and there are a number of specialized support companies, such as OpenLogic and SourceLabs. Even though all these options exist, there is still a notion that “there is no support for FOSS”…

“The ironic thing is that open-source companies primarily sell support, not software,” Matt Asay pointed out in a recent CNet article. His position is that commercial software companies tend to add on support almost as an afterthought to the software sales, while “a dedicated open-source vendor that makes its money selling support may well be a better source of support than a large vendor for whom support isn’t its primary revenue stream.”

In short, then — high-quality FOSS support is widely available, contrary to the popular perception.

But there is a cost.

“No credible nonprofit technology open source advocate has ever suggested that open source software was free to implement,” however, Michelle Murrain says: Free and open-source software is “free as in kittens” — it doesn’t matter whether you buy an expensive purebred Persian or adopt a free kitten from a neighbourhood cat’s unplanned litter. Your costs of ownership will be the same from the day that you bring it home.

That can be a real stumbling block for the smaller, budget-conscious nonprofit, unfortunately, if the primary reason for adopting open-source software was simply the low up-front price tag.

The true costs of free and open-source software must take into account the costs (in time as well as money) of training, maintenance, and emergency troubleshooting.  Bear in mind that the time spent searching forums and mailing lists in search of a bug fix is just another kind of cost to your organization, even if you're not writing a cheque. And when the “accidental techy” in your organization is unavailable or simply out of his depth with a software probelm — the cost of your software may very well include paying an IT professional to step in and help out.

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Wednesday, 20 August 2008 at 4:55 PM
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