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Apache gets big boost: 24-hour service

Apache, a software technology that serves up Web pages to a user's browser, will be following in the commercial footsteps of Linux as Covalent will offer 24-hour technical support for the software.

Apache, a software technology that serves up Web pages to a user's browser, will be following in the commercial footsteps of Linux soon.

Covalent Technologies, a Nebraska company that offers Apache add-ons and consulting services, will begin providing 24-hour technical support for the free Web server software in the end of October.

Apache is very popular among non-commercial Web sites. Yet for business users, "one of the stumbling blocks has been the lack of an actual support entity," said Randy Terbush, Covalent's chief executive and one of the original founders of the Apache Web server project, started in 1995.

The arrival of technical support for Apache is part of a trend for making free software profitable. Red Hat, a Linux operating system vendor that makes much of its money by selling Linux CDs, plans to make technical support a mainstay of its revenue stream. VA Linux Systems, which manufactures Linux-based computers, is moving in the same direction toward services and support. Linuxcare, on the other hand, focuses specifically on Linux customer services.

Open-source software has moved more into the spotlight as venture capital firms take an interest in the market. Red Hat's successful initial public offering has also raised the profile of the burgeoning open-source movement.

Like Linux, Apache is open-source software, meaning that its original programming instructions can be viewed and modified by anyone. The software is available for free, and Netcraft says Apache currently powers 55 percent of Web sites on the Internet. Apache runs on Linux, as well as on many varieties of Unix, Microsoft's Windows NT, and Apple's new server operating system.

Apache competes with Web servers such as Microsoft's Internet Information Service and Netscape's Enterprise Server. Apache is most commonly used on servers running Linux or Sun's Microsystems' Solaris, Terbush said.

Several companies are involved in the Apache effort--most notably IBM, which uses Apache in its e-commerce software. Sun has contributed its Java Server Pages technology to Apache, while Apple is working on a polished interface to Apache. In addition, SGI is talking about adding changes to the software and "HP is trying to find ways to step into the community as well," said Terbush.

But how does a company make money off something that's free? By selling technical support contracts that range from $995 for dealing with 12 situations, to subscriptions costing $60,000 a year, Terbush said.

At the most basic service level, a company with Apache questions would receive an email response, but the highest level of service guarantees a person at Covalent will answer an inquiry while technicians would deal with the problem within an hour, he said.

Currently, Covalent is the only company devoted to Apache support, said chief financial officer Ryan Lindsay. "There will be others that will try, but definitely in the short term, we will be the ones out there doing this," he said.

Covalent isn't starting its support operation from scratch. The company, founded in 1994, has more than 1,000 customers for its "Raven" product, an add-on to Apache that lets it take advantage of the secure sockets layer technology used to send private information such as credit card numbers over the Internet.

Covalent will take advantage both of its existing Raven support infrastructure as well as its Raven customer base, Terbush said.

Covalent currently has nine employees, Terbush said. "As demand grows, we'll build out," he said. It's hard recruiting people to work in its Nebraska headquarters, he acknowledged, but the company is working with local educational institutions to help fill up the pipeline of Apache experts.

Covalent will support unmodified, standard versions of Apache, though support for customized versions is possible through Covalent's consulting services, Terbush said.