The Linux Box's Elizabeth Ziph Discusses the Convergence of Customers, Contributions and Code

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 12, 2009

I've discovered that open source software is bursting at the seams with dedicated and innovative people. On the one hand, it's wonderful to be working with so many who fit this description -- on the other hand, it's sometimes hard to follow and zero in on open source endeavors that deserve a shout out, simply because so many do.

This is why I was thrilled when I heard about The Linux Box. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Linux Box offers a variety of open source software services. But there are a few things that set The Linux Box apart -- and are decidedly positive signs for open source software's future.

The Linux Box, established ten years ago, has seen its staff grow 12% over the past year, and, given the current demand, believes it could increase to 25% in the coming year. There's also a unique approach to "giving back" at The Linux Box. Not only are staff developers given time to contribute to open source projects, customers requesting customized code are encouraged to give these modifications back to the projects. It's no wonder I jumped at the chance to talk to Elizabeth Ziph, CEO and co-founder of The Linux Box.

OStatic: The Linux Box opened for business in 1999, a time when everyone was opening .coms, or nervously gearing up for the impending Y2K doom. While companies at the time (perhaps unwittingly) were using open source software, it wasn't quite as much on the radar as it is now. Why did you decide to start the Linux Box?

Ziph: Matt Benjamin, the co-founder of The Linux Box loved Linux (and all Unix systems) and open source for a long time. I was a bit new to the concept in 1997. Over the next two years, as I learned more about it, I was mostly curious why it had such high anonymity and low adoption rates. It occurred to me that fear was the biggest resistance factor; fear of getting stuck and not knowing who, if anyone, to call if the software failed. We thought that the adoption rates would increase if organizations had a reliable company whom they could consult about choices – and options – and call for help with installation, configuration, training, support and development needs. We thought that a support services model for open source software would be useful and profitable.

OStatic: How many companies (not directly associated with an open source project, e.g. Red Hat) offered paid support, consulting and training services for open source software at that time?

Ziph: The first one we saw was We read that they got ~80M in VC funding and were very visible. Then, sadly, they crashed and are now long gone. There were several small companies we came across later that offered open source support but for the most part it was added on to their Windows or Sun/HP/IBM Unix support offerings. To this day, there are IT services companies who get a contract for open source/Linux work and subcontract it to us.

OStatic: How did the .com bust change the way your clients (or businesses expressing interest in the Linux Box) saw open source software?

Ziph: I think our customers followed the pattern used for most innovations and open source is no exception, except for the stunning paradigm of free software and access to the source code. Our customers followed the, now classic, Geoffrey Moore: "Crossing the Chasm" innovation adoption theory. In our first two to three years, our customers were the Innovators. They were starting new companies or developing new products. They were low on funds and high on tolerance. They took risks just like us. Open source was perfect for them. They used the tools and software because they could afford it and only needed us to help them with it. Sometime they needed us to write the code for their product using open source software development tools. During the next one to two years, the Early Adopters came along and they were less tolerant of bugs or failures or risk, but had more funding for projects. And the scope of the work we did for them increased in complexity. When IBM, SUN, Oracle, Sybase, HP, Dell and others announced commitment to open source and Linux, they in fact enabled the crossing of the chasm by reducing the fear element significantly and indirectly increased our credibility. Larger customers chose us as provider of open source software services; first in small ways in non-mission critical systems and then in the infrastructure and applications. Now open source is everywhere – not exclusively – but you'll be hard pressed to find organizations that have not heard of it or do not use it somewhere.

OStatic: One of the neatest things about the Linux Box is that 20% of the budget is committed to researching, developing, and contributing to the open source projects your clients use. What are the benefits, hidden or otherwise, that have come from this for your staff, and how has this ultimately helped your clients?

Ziph: We felt that since we make our living off of open source code, we should give back as much as possible. Also, when you do not have a large marketing budget, the best way to promote your expertise is to "show them the goods." We give code to the community; the code is transparent and available, subjected to peer review; the users download it and recognize that we contributed the code; and it passed peer review – which is a testimony to the quality of our work. They contact us if they need customization of the code.

Additionally, when you are in consulting, the work comes in waves and staff has a bit of bench time on occasion. We use this time to work on community projects and grow the collective company expertise. We can do this because our staffers are our employees – not contractors.

OStatic: Clients can also agree to contribute code created for them to the open source community. How many clients have done this?

Ziph: Not all, but over 50 percent of our customers like us to contribute the code back. The advantage to them is that when it comes time to upgrade the software, their customizations are there and they do not have to reapply their custom code. In one case, this was so important to a customer that they paid us a bonus when the code was accepted (committed) by the project. Giving the code back to the project requires additional work- you can’t just throw it "over the wall" and wipe your hands. It requires bundling code to meet the project's needs, general documentation, communication with the right players, code review discussions, changes that will make the code generic enough for larger use and compliance with the project road map. Many users and organizations actually customize the code but not as many give it back because it's time consuming and hard work.

Another benefit to the customer is vendor independence. Once the customizations are accepted by and incorporated into the project, the customer can work with any other company to get similar services, although I must say that our customer retention rates are pretty high. Customers stay with us because they want to – not because they have to.

OStatic: Has there been a shift in what clients are looking for (in application scope (e.g. in house server configurations vs. hosted CMS deployments) and in services offered (support vs. training)) over the years?

Ziph: Our practice spans software from the data link to the application level and we noticed an increase in work at both the application level and system level.

  • (Increase) The shift is to customize content management systems such as Drupal and Zope/Plone, Moodle that allow organizations to distribute the activities associated with web content management rather than centralize it in one office for coordination and faster updates.

  • (Increase) The shift is to web applications rather than custom UI.

  • (Increase) There is an interest in integration/interoperation of applications whereby you get the goodness of the best applications for specific functions and get to share data across them without data reentry. Increase in enhancements to systems such as OpenAFS, Squid, Mailman, BSD Kernel work

  • (Decrease) We noticed that training for example became less of a need than it was initially and in this economy it is typically the first this to be dropped from the budget. It's not a hardship with open source because it has become much easier to download, install and configure than it used to be. Good documentation has become easily accessible and the schools and colleges use open source software so university graduates already know it. We occasionally conduct custom training is topics that require expert knowledge.

OStatic: The Linux Foundation recently published a paper describing how and why Linux and open source software in general helped lead up to, and will forge ahead and grow with, the trend to move to cloud computing and software-as-a-service models. How do you think this will change the services your clients ask for?

Ziph: Some of our clients host their own software and others have it hosted. Whether it's in a cloud or in a SaaS environment – if they need it customized we don't care where the software or data reside. We will discuss with them issues of security, auditability, privacy, backup and recovery and make sure that they make wise decisions, no matter which path they choose for operations.

OStatic: Has it already changed the services your clients ask for?

Ziph: Not really. There is an increase in the number and types of projects our customers ask us to perform.

OStatic: How do you think it will impact development -- in terms of what the Linux Box (and clients) contribute, as well as in a wider sense?

Ziph: There is no simple answer here. The cloud and SaaS operators who use open source software (and they can do it because they do not have license and fee restrictions, else the concept would not be financially viable) will not take the OSS projects over, and in that sense what we do will stay the same. But as the cloud becomes more prevalent, other issues will come up. I do not have a crystal ball and do not see the black swan here but we'll be watching, as we continuously do, and adjust accordingly. That's what all businesses have to do at all times.

But, just in case, we're diversifying into new product development – more on this by the end of 3rd quarter.

Ziph says that The Linux Box's strength comes from its focus on bringing its customers -- and the open source community -- quality service and quality software. All staff members are trained on the ISO 9001:2000 system (migration to ISO 9001:2008 is currently underway) -- a detail Ziph admits is a huge commitment, but is instrumental in making The Linux Box stand out.

It's obviously working -- and working well. The Linux Box is currently at work supporting companies, educational institutions and non-profits in industries ranging from engineering to horticulture. It has survived (and grown) in what's been a tumultuous decade for the economy -- and technology. It's not just because it works with open source software -- it's because it can bring something more to its clients, and the projects its clients use.