Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 3

Linux FUD Pattern #2: Linux is not “officially” supported

When you hear the phrase “official support,” what comes to mind? Informative user manuals? A well-staffed call center? But what makes it “official”? This is the second item on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD patterns: the lack of “official” Linux support. The goal of FUD based on this notion is a mixture of fear and uncertainty, to make you believe that using Linux means having no place to turn when a problem occurs.

Generally speaking, “official support” for a product is provided by the entity that owns the intellectual property for the product and/or has the right to produce and distribute it. Products are typically sold or leased, both of which are types of business transactions; this implies that the entity in question is operating as a business. A third-party provider paid to support a product may be licensed by, or otherwise affiliated with the original vendor, but only the vendor’s fixes and upgrades are “officially” supported. “Official” support connotes a certain level of authority or expertise, but also implies consequences, usually legal or fiscal, for a failure to meet service expectations. This is the model used by businesses today.

Linux, however, is not a business-supported product (per se). Linux is not “owned” by a particular entity, nor does one particular entity retain the exclusive right to update and distribute it. It is licensed under the GNU Public License (GPL), which permits any software recipient to modify and distribute the software or derivatives thereof as long as the conditions of the GPL are not violated. This is coupled with the open source philosophy, but they aren’t exactly the same thing – an open source application may be licensed under something other than the GPL.

So then, who does “officially” support Linux? The answer is that Linux has always been a grassroots movement. Though it was originally created by one man, Linux is “officially” maintained by a community made up of individuals, groups, and yes, businesses. Different groups within the community support different parts of the system. These groups are commonly known as “maintainers” and usually include original authors or those to whom the torch of authority has been successively passed. For example, assuming the Wikipedia article on the Linux Kernel is not out-of-date, Mr. Torvalds still supervises changes to the core of Linux and has designated the maintenance of older releases to other individual maintainers. The parts maintained are typically called “projects”. Various entities, such as Ubuntu and Red Hat, bundle various system parts together as a unit and ensure that their respective distributions operate as expected, that is to say, that they operate well.

While maintainer and/or community support for a Linux distribution or a particular project may be “official”, technical assistance may not be readily available, on demand, free of charge, or for that matter, available at all. Most maintainers are polite and willing to help, but please remember that much of Linux has been contributed by developers and that support offered pro bono publico doesn’t help feed the family or pay the mortgage. This is where the rest of the community helps out, in the form of online support forums.

Paid support is available as part of the commercial offerings made by Red Hat, Novell, Linspire and others. Additionally, some of these companies offer professional services, such as consulting and training, though these services are typically meant for consumption by businesses, not home users. Any company offering fee-based technical support for Linux is free to set their own price, whatever the market will bear.

In an increasingly tech-savvy world, I think the difference between commercial and community-based support is rapidly decreasing. Consider the available courses of action that may be taken when a problem does occur with a commercial OS. Almost always, the first step is to search the Internet for a root cause, if not a full-blown resolution. This is often done as a cost-saving measure (easy fix) or so that the user/administrator can better explain the problem to tech support when a call is eventually made. Moreover, help may be actively sought in a multitude of discussion groups, mailing lists, blogs, chat rooms and other forums dedicated to supporting various operating systems. Another option is to consult with a friend or relative that knows about these sorts of things. Of course, the “official” vendor or (gasp) a consultant can be called upon, usually for a fee of course. At the discretion of the user/administrator, the problem may be eliminated by brute force: reinstalling the OS. (Actually, this last option isn’t all bad as long as no data were lost – it provides an opportunity to “clean house” and possibly upgrade to a newer release or move to a different distribution.) The order of preference for these alternatives depends on the facts and circumstances surrounding the problem, but they almost always rank from the least- to the most-expensive in terms of time, effort and cash outlay.

Hardware support (or lack thereof) often appears as diversionary FUD regarding “official” support. Hardware must be able to communicate with the computer at several levels, starting with the physical. For example, a USB device can be attached to any machine with the appropriate port, but to use the device the OS must know how to communicate with both the USB itself and the device on the other side. Obviously, this issue quickly boils down to device drivers and brings us back to a discussion of “official” software support.

Rest assured, common devices such as keyboards, mice and thumb drives, almost always work using standard Linux drivers. In other words, they don’t support Linux; rather, Linux supports them. Newer device classes for which no “official” Linux drivers are provided often suffer a period of incompatibility or reduced usefulness. For example, Wi-fi network interface cards are now going through the same sort of transition that consumer-class Ethernet cards did about six or eight years ago. Many times, this is because drivers have to be derived from messages sent to and from the devices, often requiring many hours of experimentation. A general rule of thumb: hardware compatibility problems are more common as the hardware becomes more exotic. For example, I experienced new levels of frustration with the big-name vendor of a certain USB-ready programmable television remote control for which future Linux support was promised and never delivered. But, the fact is, hardware vendors have the right to choose to support Linux or not, a decision based on supply and demand. The need to operate specific hardware may dictate which OS is used.

The best advice I can give is to ignore the FUD and adopt a pragmatic approach to defining your support needs. Your needs are specific to you. Compile a scorecard and do some research. Questions that should be answered include the following. What is your level of expertise with computers? Have you needed professional OS support in the past? Do you expect to need it in the future? Are you comfortable doing your own support work? Based on community-supplied information? Is your hardware “officially” supported or listed in one of the various compatibility lists? Do you use exotic hardware components? Have you tried running a Linux Live CD, especially Knoppix? When buying a new PC or laptop, have other users posted their experiences with the same model? Research never hurts, but just be on the lookout for more FUD!

Cheers!
-Brandon

<< Go To Part 2 Read Part 4 >>

7 responses to “Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 3”

  1. itsgregman says :

    Ive got to say as a recent convert to Linux that “official support” isnt all its made out to be. With windows usually you get manufacturers support which is next to useless. Whereas in every Linux distro I tried their support forums actually had people who could help resolve any problem quickly and efficiently. If you want someone to assist you who doesnt generally know the system (just reads down a checklist) use windows. If you want assistance from people who know the system inside out use Linux. Just my two cents.

  2. Kevin Guertin says :

    Awesome article, Brandon! 🙂

  3. anon says :

    Anyone that believes the FUD about Linux support obviously has never used a computer for long enough to encounter a problem.

    In my experience, usually Windows support comes first from the manufacturer of the machine, which involves sitting on the phone listening to someone that is clearly reading straight from a script (hopefully one somehow relevant to the problem) tell you things you already know and waste your time until you realize that he knows less than you do about how to fix it.

    And as for Microsoft? Unless you are a huge business forking over tons of money to them, forget it. One time some friends had problems getting a legal copy of MS Office to validate. Nothing would work. Not using the key or anything else. The manufacturer was, of course, useless. Turns out, at the time, MS’s support policy involved us paying them $50 per call or email. No promise of actually getting help or a fix. Just a $50 required payment for the privilege of the opportunity to send a transmission to the mothership. Forget that. I installed OpenOffice instead and the problem magically went away and hasn’t returned since ;>

    Now, in the Linux world, just take 5 minutes to register in your distribution’s forum, post a question, and odds are you will get a complete step-by-step fix, or at least as much helpful information as is known, within minutes to hours. Can’t comment on support from companies like Red Hat since I haven’t yet run into anything bad enough to need it.

    I’ve had to act as tech support for both Windows and Linux machines at a university in the past, and from my experience, the proprietary companies can keep their “official” support, and I’ll keep my “unofficial” solutions.

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