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HP support of Linux changes landscape

Hewlett-Packard says it will beat IBM out the Linux support gate and in the process start to put financial pressure on those that helped launch the revolution.

HP says it will beat IBM out the Linux support gate, offering technical support for Linux users worldwide by May 3, and in the process start to put financial pressure on the companies that helped launch the Linux revolution.

Hewlett-Packard will offer worldwide technical services and support for Intel-based computers running the four major commercial distributions of Linux: Red Hat, SuSE, Pacific HiTech, and Caldera Systems, the company said today. The support will be for computers from IBM, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, as well as HP's own machines.

HP's move puts pressure not only on IBM, which is putting together its own Linux support program, but also Red Hat, Pacific HiTech, SuSE, LinuxCare, and other early champions of Linux. Because the Linux OS can be obtained for free or very low cost, these companies function like consulting and support organizations instead of classic software developers or distributors.

Red Hat's strategy, for example, is to establish a well-known brand name, then to make money by selling support and services for Linux, chief executive Robert Young has said. With its Linux CDs available for less than $50, Red Hat, among others, hasn't tied its business model to product sales, according to Young.

In the space of just a few months, major computer companies have begun scrambling to find the best way to make money off Linux by selling servers, software, and support. And, unfortunately for Red Hat and the rest of the Linux vendors, HP, IBM, and others with global support services are gunning for the same Linux support contracts as Red Hat.

IBM, for its part, says its Linux technical support in North America already is in place, and its global support will be in place by the end of June.

In addition, IBM will offer "a full range of services" for Linux, including planning and installation of Linux machines as well as making them work with a company's existing computers, data, and software, said Dick Sullivan, vice president of integrated solutions marketing at IBM. Those services also will be available worldwide by the end of June.

HP's support offering so far is likely to appeal to small and medium-sized businesses, though larger companies are likely going to want a broader range of services, said Gartner Group analyst George Weiss. "Basically, this is what vendors have to do to make [Linux] more persuasive as a corporate operating system," he said. "HP is moving in the right direction."

HP will beat out IBM, which plans to offer U.S. Linux support this quarter and worldwide Linux support by the end of the year, said Kristy Ward, Linux support marketing manager at HP. However, she acknowledged HP still is in the process of training its Linux support staff, an offshoot of its existing Unix support crew.

But IBM's Global Services division is a force to be reckoned with. Weiss said IBM's Linux support likely will be broader, encompassing work such as tying Linux servers in with IBM database or messaging software.

HP is considering how to expand Linux services into new areas, such as working with Linux customers earlier in the technical support cycle to prevent problems before they happen instead of just helping afterward, Ward said. In addition, HP will offer training, either at HP, the customer site, or over the Web, she said.

HP's support costs $130 a month per computer for round-the-clock technical support, including a two-hour response time, Ward said. For support on business days only, the price is $100 a month, she said. There is no per-incident support plan, as Red Hat and LinuxCare offer.

"It's pretty aggressive pricing," she said.

The pricing is enticing, Weiss commented, but it's not an inconsiderable sum: For a company with 100 Linux servers, yearly support would cost more than $100,000.

HP also will offer free access to any user to the Linux section of its online knowledge database, Ward added. Using that database saves labor costs for HP--half the time customers going to the electronic support center solve their own problem.

HP's support offerings tie in with its Linux hardware plan, said Wayne Caccamo, director of HP's open source solutions operations. HP offers Linux-certified Intel-based computers and is helping the Puffin Group to port Linux to HP's own PA-RISC chips.

HP's Linux services are not unlimited, however. HP supports only "qualified configurations" of the Unix-like operating system, and at this point the services are limited to fixing computers that aren't working right instead of more elaborate consulting options.