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VA Linux lets customers fine-tune software choices

The seller of Linux-based systems unveils a new online store that allows buyers to configure the software they want as well as the hardware.

VA Linux Systems has unveiled a new online store that allows buyers to configure the software they want as well as the hardware.

Build-to-order hardware ordering, popularized by Dell Computer, allows customers to specify what memory, video card, hard disk size and other options they want. But thus far, build-to-order software has been limited generally to a few basic packages, such as Microsoft Windows 98 vs. 2000 or adding packages for video games or small business.

VA's build-to-order software option allows customers to choose from a few basic configurations, then specify in detail which of more than 700 software packages they'd like installed, chief executive Larry Augustin said in an interview. In addition, customers can save configurations and return to them later if they want to order another or modify the configuration.

VA hopes it will benefit from the new system by promoting repeat business, Augustin said.

"It increases the stickiness of the customer," he said. "Most of our customers want the ability to configure the software on the system. They don't want a generic software load."

The offering also ties in with VA's push to become a services and support company as well as a computer seller. For one thing, the build-to-order program helps VA keep track of what customers have ordered, making it easier to provide them with technical support.

"In terms of operations, I think it ends up costing us less," Augustin said. "We know what they've loaded."

By the end of the year, VA Linux will add the ability to update customers' computers with the same build-to-order technology, sending updates over the Internet, Augustin said. VA hasn't decided whether to charge for that service, he said.

Typically, build-to-order software is a feature computer sellers offer to large, valuable customers who buy lots of computers.

The 700 software packages in VA's build-to-order program are freely available open-source components, the sort that can be found on distributions of Linux from companies such as Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE or TurboLinux. VA will later expand the program to include proprietary packages such as Oracle's database software.

"In effect, we become a reseller of that software," Augustin said.

In the future, as VA learns more about what types of configurations customers are ordering, the company will create new basic packages such as Web server or programmer workstation, he said.

The build-to-order system has been a year in the making. It involves a close collaboration with Synnex, the contract manufacturer that actually builds the systems and installs the software.

Synnex has VA servers at its manufacturing site that have all the necessary software packages. After a customer has placed an order, the VA computers create the software components needed on the fly, and Synnex installs them.

VA is one of the top Linux companies that had its initial public offering in the glory days of the operating system. High demand for the company's stock pushed its price up a record 698 percent on the first day of trading. VA's stock has since settled down to about $41 today, still above the $30 IPO price.

The build-to-order package is based on Red Hat's edition of Linux, Augustin said. In coming months, however, VA will add an option based on Debian, a version of Linux maintained completely by volunteers. Debian differs from Red Hat in that it uses a different boot-up and update process, and components are stored in different directories.

The software has been in development for more than a year, Augustin said.