Vector Linux, the decade old Canadian Linux distribution based on Slackware, has partnered with SQI Incorporated of Reno, Nevada to provide support infrastructure, both for the commercial support Vector Linux began offering earlier this year and for the wider community. SQI is providing and hosting their Incident Manager software, a ticketing system specifically for paid support customers, as well as a knowledge base available to all Vector Linux users. In addition to providing the software for the knowledge base they are assisting with content creation. The new Vector Linux website which was unveiled in July is also hosted by SQI in what SQI President Jeff Elpern describes as a "world-class data center environment."
The new partnership between Vector Linux and SQI was actually born out of a charitable effort. Elpern explains:
"SQI got involved with Vector Linux [through] the Computers for Kids program run here in Reno by the Lions club. We re-task older PCs from business and school districts by converting to an open source operation system with open source applications. We have already placed a few hundred systems in the hands of under privileged kids.
After some trials we decided on Vector Linux as the distribution to use because it functioned so well on older PCs. This lead to a relationship with [Vector Linux co-founder] Darrell [Stavem] as we worked [through] installation issues on specific manufacturer's equipment. As the relationship grew we learned that VL was looking for a client support system to enable the new Paid Support option they wanted to implement. SQI provides this for commercial high-tech firms and we offered to provide to VL for no charge."
Linux distributions break down into three rough categories: major commercial distributions with large corporate ties and/or deep-pocketed investors. Red Hat/Fedora, SuSe, Ubuntu, and TurboLinux would all be examples of large, commercial Linux distributions. The other end of the spectrum is filled with many small distros built either by a single hobbyist/developer or a small community of volunteer developers. These distributions generally have little or no income, surviving on the goodwill of the developers and perhaps small contributions from devoted users. Vector Linux fits squarely into the middle group: mid-sized distributions with a significant user and developer community but no large corporate ties.
When the Vector Linux developers created the larger SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) edition of the distribution a few years ago they identified a target market: small business users. My own experience as a consultant tells me that this is an underserved market. It is also a very difficult market it which to sell Linux solutions. Small businesses generally can't afford dedicated IT staff so they go with what they are familiar with, which generally means Windows. Often these Windows systems aren't terribly well configured or maintained with all the problems and security issues that entails. These businesses also are most sensitive to costs and both software licensing costs and support costs are a big issue to them. They should be ideal candidates for Linux but it is a tough sell because there is an initial conversion, a learning curve, and an unfamiliar system generally requiring a new source of support.
The SQI/Vector partnership provides a professional looking presentation of low cost support services for small businesses in a highly reliable infrastructure. It provides the necessary tools to make Vector Linux a presentable option to be offered by consultants serving small business or for knowledgeable small business owners to tap into directly. Elpern describes himself as a "dedicated open source supporter." He believes SQI provides Vector Linux the tools to attract what he calls "mainstream users" and "solution seekers" to the distribution. He sees a migration to open source solutions as "a revolution in the making" and he clearly believes Vector Linux has a role to play in that revolution.
If Vector Linux and SQI are successful in their efforts the VL developers should eventually see a fairly steady revenue stream. The trick is to successfully earn enough money to support the core developers so that they can work full time on polishing and perfecting the distribution, including the ongoing development of Vector Linux' unique tools and applications that can be offered to the wider Linux community. They need to do this without alienating their community by appearing overly commercial in their focus. It will be an interesting balancing act, one which I'm certain other mid-sized distribution developers who would like to work full time on their Linux and Open Source projects will be watching.