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In the know with Linux

In the know with Linux

Welcome back to Linux in the Channel. In this column, we investigate ways in which we as resellers, consultants and services companies can make money by deploying open-source solutions.

Following on from previous issues, the game plan is to look at a growing market need, identify a quality open-source contender, outline a business case for building a solution around it and perhaps sample a quickie business plan. Our target market for discussion this time is the growing interest in knowledge management Web portals.

As with most abstract concepts, there is no universal definition of either knowledge management or KM portals. In general, KM is a means by which organisations achieve value from their latent informational, knowledge-based and intellectual assets. This value is gained through the increase in efficiencies in sharing knowledge among an organisation's employees. One of the best ways of extracting and sharing this latent knowledge is via a portal - a Web-based information, querying, collaborative and communication tool.

The following are a few examples of competing closed-source portals: Epicentric's Foundation Server, iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions' Portal Server, Plumtree Software's Corporate Portal and Viador's E-Portal Framework.

The prices for these products range from $A48,650 to $350,290 with a median of around $243,250. For this tidy little sum, you get yourself a complex and powerful tool that delivers many services to end users.

Our approach with the open-source equivalent will be to achieve the practical 80/20 equivalent - deploy a tool that does 80 per cent of what the more expensive tools do, with 20 per cent of the complexity and perhaps less than 5 per cent of the cost.

The Linux open-source contender is a system called Drupal (www.drupal.org). Drupal is GPL software and comes with full source code and no re-use, deployment or per-seat licence costs. According to the project notes, Drupal is a content management/discussion and knowledge management engine suitable to set up or build a content-driven or organisation-driven Web site. The project aims to allow easy installation, excessive configuration options and fine-grained maintenance capabilities. Due to its modular design, Drupal is flexible and easy to adapt or extend. It is written using PHP (an open-source Web scripting technology) and MySQL (probably the Web's most popular database, reviewed in ARN, Sept 26, 2001, p38).

As enterprising system services and channel providers who want to deliver value to our clients, we must first ascertain their needs and requirements then review the competing product space to find a good match. You may find, as I did, that most of your clients' needs are more than met by the functionality provided by Drupal. It then becomes a matter of proposing and building a solution based on this technology.

There are two easily identifiable market segments for reselling a Drupal solution to your customer. If it is a price-conscious organisation of SME size (less than 250 staff) you are best served by creating a Drupal Portal Appliance: 2RU rack-unit, Athlon/Celeron CPU, 128MB RAM, 2 x 20 Gigabyte IDE disks in a RAID arrangement. Any of the main Linux distributions - Red Hat, Caldera, SuSe, Debian - will be fine as the base operating system, as they all ship with the MySQL and PHP4 packages that Drupal needs.

Your Linux distribution should recognise the twin disks and offer the option of establishing a RAID system, and also a choice of quality Journaled File Systems. Both these technologies do wonders for data integrity and downtime minimisation, but are not a substitute for a data-backup regime. You should investigate the wonderful RSYNC technology (http:// rsync.samba.org/), developed right here in Australia by the people who did SAMBA. With RSYNC, you can efficiently push the portal's data onto another server that has tape-backup facilities.

The target price-point for this appliance/service, including installation and integration with the customer's network, is $3000-$5000, with a margin of between 50 and 80 per cent.

When your customer has over 250 users or is not as price-sensitive, you should consider a server from one of the "name" vendors (IBM, HP, Compaq, Acer, SGI, all of whom offer strong Linux support out of the box) with large RAID disks and DDS4 tape backup. The target price-point for this server - including installation and integration with the customer's network, system and bare-metal recovery documentation, business continuity planning, and the provision of a support agreement - is between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on hardware specifications and ongoing support fees for your continued custom. The margin is around 50 per cent.

Open source is available as a means by which you and your organisation are able to make much higher margins (nothing beats zero-cost software in this respect), open up new market possibilities (you may or may not be able to sign a reseller agreement with a portal vendor but all reselers have the right to package open-source solutions), and improve your relationship with your client (remember, it's just you and the client in this transaction; there is no vendor present to draw the limelight or kudos in the eyes of your client).

One more thing: while it may be true that you don't need to pay the developers of these open-source projects, it is in your (enlightened) interest to assist these development projects in any way you can. That might include supplying them with notes on any bugs you encounter in their code, or by adding (or hiring a coder to add) some additional functionality you may need to the core package and then sending it back to the maintainers as a software enhancement, or perhaps by donating older equipment. The more help they get, the better the software becomes, and the more scope you will have for selling solutions based on this maturing technology.

Knowledge management Web portals

Proprietary options: Epicentric's Foundation Server, iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions' Portal Server, Plumtree Software's Corporate Portal and Viador's E-Portal Framework. Cost: $48,650-$350,290.

Open-source contender: Drupal portal appliance with a Linux OS. Cost: $3000-$5000. Margin: 50-80 per cent.

Name servers that offer Linux support: IBM, HP, Compaq, Acer, SGI. Cost: $10,000-$15,000. Margin: 50 per cent.

Con Zymaris is the CEO of Cybersource, a professional services company based in Melbourne. Have any tax torments, accounting afflictions or legal line-balls to put to our experts? E-mail them to agnes_king@idg.com.au.


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