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Linux: freeware--at a price

Linux is leaving its freeware image behind as companies try to make money off the operating system's growing popularity.

Linux is leaving its freeware image behind as companies try to make money off the operating system's growing popularity.

Driving the movement is the growing interest of big corporations in Linux as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows NT and to other versions of Unix.

To appeal to big business, Linux resellers are bolstering customer service offerings to provide the round-the-clock support that large corporations have come to expect from technology providers.

Server software from Pacific Hi-Tech, the leading Linux seller in Japan, will come with features that large corporate customers want--and at a price. The soon-to-be-announced Enterprise Server Edition will come with database software from Oracle, email software from Sendmail, and backup software from Enhanced Software Technologies , Chief Executive Cliff Miller said in an interview.

Miller says a branded Linux, tied to established software applications, will appeal to corporations. "While there are good free databases available, corporate customers likely will be "more comfortable using Linux if it had Oracle 8 stamped on it or [IBM's] DB2 stamped on it," he said.

Pacific High-Tech isn't the only Linux distributor aiming squarely for the corporate market, where customers have deep pockets as well as higher demands. SuSE, Red Hat, and Caldera Systems have been beefing up their service offerings with 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week technical support, with annual subscriptions costing tens of thousands of dollars. And independent companies such as LinuxCare have been cropping up to help those companies out.

On the hardware side, companies such as Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard charge special fees to install the Unix-like operating system.

Pacific Hi-Tech will be following suit, beefing up its support offerings so people can call a technical support hotline instead of looking on the Internet for answers, Miller said.

Pacific Hi-Tech will announce the Enterprise Server Edition at the LinuxWorld conference March 1, along with a less expensive, freeware-oriented little brother called the Server Edition, Miller said. The Server Edition will cost about $199; pricing for the Enterprise Server Edition hasn't yet been set, but will probably be more than $2,000.

The server editions will be more tightly configured to provide server features such as Web page delivery, email, and Windows file sharing, with software tuned to work together. They won't be all-purpose packages like the company's TurboLinux (version 3.0.1) distribution the company has begun trying to sell in North America, so people looking for Linux games or software such as the Gimp graphics editor shouldn't buy the server editions.

The server editions also will be easier to install, with the installation routine set up to install the minimum number of programs for maximum performance and security, Miller said. For example, the default configuration won't install the "X Windows" graphical user interface, which soaks up precious memory, Miller said.

Miller said his company will contract with companies experienced in Unix to provide technical support. Initially, the telephone support will be offered during business hours, but Pacific Hi-Tech plans to expand to round-the-clock hours within a few months, Miller said.

The technical support will take the form of annual subscriptions, with companies able to choose from a menu what software they need supported. A customer could buy support for the Apache Web server, for example, then later spend more money for support for the Samba file and print servers software.

When the server editions ship initially, they will come with the 2.0 version of the Linux kernel by default, though users can choose to install the newer version 2.2, which is better able to take advantage of multiprocessor systems and has other significant improvements.

Pacific Hi-Tech is active in Asia. In North America, it sells its TurboLinux product for $49.95, including a CD-ROM, manual, and a copy of Corel's WordPerfect for Linux.