One of the most persistent myths surrounding Linux and other open source software is that there's no easy way to get good support. Just this week, for instance, we saw this claim used in Microsoft's anti-OpenOffice.org video, obviously with the hope of striking fear into business users' hearts.
Like the notion that Linux is hard to use or any of the other myths so commonly perpetuated by open source detractors, however, the idea that there's no support for free and open source software is completely false. In the hopes of putting such FUD to rest once and for all, here's a look at some of the many ways and places you can find open source support.
1. Commercial Support
First of all, the majority of major open source software packages that a business might use come with the option of paid commercial support. Red Hat and Canonical, for instance, both offer commercial support for their Linux software. Red Hat Enterprise Linux comes with support included, while with Ubuntu it's an optional extra. Pay-as-you-go support is increasingly an option as well.
Even OpenOffice.org--the subject of Microsoft's terrifying horror flick--comes with an option for paid support. Microsoft apparently forgot to mention that none other than Oracle--a major provider if ever there was one--is the software's corporate sponsor, and it offers enterprise-class support for the software. Whoops--guess that was just an oversight, right Microsoft?
Then, too, there are all the commercial consultants out there, ready and willing to help your company through any software glitches that might arise. Again, for OpenOffice.org, there's a global consultant directory offered right there on the software's main site, and that's surely just a subset of what's out there.
Lest anyone protest the cost, it's worth mentioning that numerous studies have confirmed the financial benefits of Linux in a business setting, even with paid support. Free software plus paid support does not exceed the price of paid software plus paid support. It's just simple math.
2. Free Support
OK, so there's plenty of paid support out there for companies that absolutely, positively have to have someone to turn to the minute a problem comes up. What's so amazing about free and open source software, however, is that that's just the tip of the iceberg. Underlying all that commercial activity is a world of free community support, available for the taking.
‘Army of Awesome'
One recent innovation in this area, for example, has come from Mozilla, which just this week launched its "Army of Awesome" program designed to help Firefox users get help. The new community program uses Twitter and is open to anyone seeking or willing to share Firefox know-how. So, if your business ever has an issue with Firefox, you can simply send a tweet, and very likely you'll get an answer right away.
We should all shed a tear for those poor Explorer users -- hours on hold, and at such a cost!
Of course, the Army of Awesome is a very new innovation, but it's by no means the only way to get free support for open source software. Every Linux distribution has an online community with excellent forums for getting help, and there are even forums dedicated specifically to small businesses and to newcomers in need of extra explanation.
Using the OpenOffice.org example, there's a Community Forum, right there in plain sight. For Ubuntu, there's free documentation, live support chat, Web forums, mailing lists and a Launchpad-based Q&A system.
Many open source packages are also supported by forges, wikis and Usenet newsgroups. And don't forget Google, which has quickly and easily answered many questions of mine. What was that about no support, again?
Companies You Already Pay
Finally, if your business is already paying a systems integrator or consultancy for services in another area, it's perfectly reasonable to ask them to help you out with the occasional open source question, too. As open source becomes increasingly mainstream in the business world, most such companies have acquired expertise in this area--why not ask them to share it, since you're already paying anyway? I can tell you for sure this is a strategy that has worked before.
Then, too, there are the open source vendors you're already paying. If your business is buying commercial support from Canonical, for instance, try asking them for help if another open source problem arises. The worst they can do is tell you where you can find the help you need.
This is not, of course, to say that Linux or other open source software is necessarily the best choice for your business in every area. But support should not be a point of any concern.
Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.