Channel partners need to have open source in their arsenal, even if customers don't care or ask for it by name. Why? Analyst Jay Lyman explains.
By Colleen Frye
September 24, 2010
Analyst Jay Lyman researches and reports on open source software for The 451 Group. In this interview, he talks about the changing attitudes of SMBs regarding the use of open source software as well as the potential opportunity for solution providers.
ChannelPro-SMB: How have SMBs’ attitudes toward open source software changed since your report on that topic in 2007?
Lyman: At that time, we said the market opportunity for open source among SMBs doesn’t match up to the hype of open source software for SMBs. The bottom line was the opportunity was far greater in the enterprise for open source software vendors and open source software in general. Today it’s a much different story. Economic conditions have driven interest in open source [among SMBs] and similarly lowered some risk threshold. Other drivers are lock-in concerns [with proprietary software] and the flexibility that open source software delivers and is known for.
It’s driving open source among systems integrators, VARs, channel players. It’s a realization that they need to have open source in their arsenal, even if customers don’t care or ask for it by name. There’s a growing appreciation among SMBs and their suppliers that it means more than free code—even an SMB might have some pull or influence on the code roadmap [with community involvement], and also more proficiency with the products they’re using.
ChannelPro-SMB: Do SMBs typically take the lead in pushing to adopt open source, or are they led to it by their vendors/solution providers?
Lyman: No, they aren’t as fully cognizant or aware of what open source entails. I often talk about how the customer doesn’t care, but open source is critical because it’s a way for the channel provider to provide what the customer does want and is interested in, but it’s not necessarily something they’re going to include in their messaging. This is where the SMB/user might not be aware that their supplier is heavily reliant on Linux, MySQL, and Apache Tomcat, for example; it’s in the plumbing and they don’t really see it.
ChannelPro-SMB: How important for SMBs in particular is the ability to get support for open source software?
Lyman: For most of the widely used packages there are a number of commercial support options. Typically it’s no longer the case that you’re using software from a community project. It happens, but the fact that you have an option to get peripheral support or pay for an SLA [service-level agreement] has helped to drive open source software among channel players too. It resembles a process they’re used to. Customers want the advantage of open source and the option of free use and a community, but they also want to pay for it and have a company to call if something goes wrong—particularly SMBs.
ChannelPro-SMB: How can VARs and solution providers make money with open source?
Lyman: One, it’s this community idea that you grow a community/ecosystem around the software, which will drive use, which will lead to more paid use. The other thing is proprietary enhancements. It’s common among open source software vendors to sell a commercially licensed version that comes with advanced features or other enhancements. [So the VAR is] getting a cut of the subscription license.
ChannelPro-SMB: How do SMBs get started with open source?
Lyman: The SMB customer, similar to the enterprise, will have an open source champion. Most typically they search for an open source option—“This guy says we can try OpenOffice.” And a lot of times after the fact they go to the VAR [and say], “We put OpenOffice in, and it turns out we like it. Would you guys be able to support us? And how much would it cost?” The challenge for the VAR is to come up with pricing, because they don’t have a lot of experience in supporting it themselves. [The SMB customer] can explore support options either through the open source software vendor or through their trusted partner, and I think they’d prefer the latter.