Project X enlists members for grassroots Linux support

Canadian open source customers would receive more timely response to software problems and personal attention to their application needs under a proposed plan to create a national guild of Linux developers.

Still known only as “”Project X,”” the initiative would see members from the Linux

development community subscribe their clients under a monthly fee of $10 per computer running open source software. The members would then freely help each other to fix bugs and add new features that clients request. Members would keep the support fees they charge from clients, but the project is intended to help members grow their support business by demonstrating they have access to a wider pool of development talent.

Roy Souther, an application developer with Silicon Tao Technologies Inc. in Lethbridge, Alta., is spearheading Project X by setting up a Web page to collect ideas for a name and to recruit fellow developers. The idea is to take the model of open source — whereby elements like the Linux kernel are freely shared and built upon — and apply it to an IT support program, he said. By sharing support, Project X members would be able to reduce the fees for their services but provide more value for those services.

“”If there’s a customer running open source software with a bug, there are hundreds of businesses around the world running the same program, and they too need to get that bug fixed,”” he said.

Besides lightening the load on individual developers, Souther said clients would benefit from more local support than might otherwise be possible. Businesses used to having a support contract with a company 3,000 miles away, for example, would gain access to a team with members who could visit them within 20 minutes. This support would also be in person rather than over the phone.

“”There are a lot of businesses providing open source support, but they want to be the ones that subscribe clients,”” he said. “”They’re not interested in having Joe Smith Computing doing something across the country in a cooperative effort.””

Nanaimo Linux Users Group member John Nelson in B.C. said he usually refers clients to larger Linux resellers if they have support concerns, but he welcomed the idea of Project X in theory.

“”It would make the business people a lot happier,”” he said.

Chris Burgess, vice-president of open source solution provider Net Direct Inc. in Waterloo, Ont., was also positive about the initiative, even though his firm already provides its own Linux support.

“”It’s not surprising that something like that is coming up, because it’s very open source-ish,”” he said. “”It’s nice to see.””

Souther said Project X members would be able to grow their business with the added credibility of a collective support team, which in turn could accelerate the adoption of open source projects within the enterprise. The first step, though, is to recruit enough members. To that end, Souther said the Project X team will soon launch an e-mail marketing campaign targeted at individuals, as opposed to a mass-mailing.

“”For a handful of developers like we have, it’s not feasible for them to take on the responsibility of promising that level of support,”” he said. “”It’s that critical mass issue.””

Even established clients continue to require a certain level of reassurance before they make the move to open source, Burgess said.

“”There’s always been lots of open source and Linux support — it’s always been there,”” he said. “”But it is a question that’s asked all the time, probably every time I walk into a customer.””

Project X has less than a dozen members currently, but Souther is aiming for a membership of thousands. If membership drives aren’t sufficient in Canada, Souther is willing to offer Project X overseas.

Project X has also approached the Canadian government for funding assistance and endorsements, Souther said. Though there are no particular prerequisites to join right now, public sector investment would be contingent upon the ability to prove its members are qualified.

“”We don’t want members that are in there who are causing more problems than they’re solving,”” he said.

Though some of the bug fixing and software customization would be dealt with over the Internet, Souther said Project X would also see the formation of working groups to deal with specific projects in person.

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