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Workshop IT people already know the benefits of open source software. A fair number of them run Linux at home (not least, according to one chief technical officer, so they can deny all knowledge of recent editions of Windows to friends and family wanting off-duty technical support), and persuading them to use it at work is not a hard sell. These are the people Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu’s commercial champion Canonical, describes as “insightful visionaries”.

In his keynote speech at the 2010 Ubuntu developer summit, the former cosmonaut spoke at length about how to make the transition from a customer base of enthusiastic early adopters to the mass market. He argued that jumping this chasm to reach customers who “will adopt your stuff if it suits their needs” means doing a whole lot of things differently.

He has a point. In companies that are not in the technology industry or are too small to have more than one tech overlord and a pimply faced assistant, the technical benefits of open source, let alone the philosophical arguments behind it, are not always clearly understood.

What matters for these customers is the business case for switching, says Paul Holt, sales director at Canonical. And it is not just about the bottom line, even in such interesting times as these. How you manage the software and what it can do for you are just as important.

"If there’s a bug, it is better to have a relationship with the people behind the code"

“For enterprises looking into open source, savings on licence fees shouldn’t be the only consideration,” he says. Freeing up company cash could give other projects the green light.

For Agora Games, the New York company behind Guitar Hero and Call of Duty: World at War, the simplification of systems administration made possible by support from Canonical has freed up a significant amount of time.

Jason LaPorte, senior systems administrator at Agora, calculates he has saved days over the course of months and weeks over the course of a year, allowing him to get back to application development.

“Because we were running a number of different operating systems on disparate hardware, I sometimes spent two or three days trying to identify and track down miscellaneous bugs. Now, they either don’t occur or we can get everything fixed within a couple of hours,” he says.

He adds that the Ubuntu-based infrastructure, along with the in-house auto-configuration tool, makes server management much easier. “We’ve probably reduced the amount of time it takes to provision and configure a server from a week to about ten minutes.”

Holt believes software should be supporting the business, not the other way around. “Companies need to be thinking in terms of risk mitigation. Open source is great, but if there’s a bug, it is better to have a relationship with the people behind the code,” he says.

In making this business case, Canonical stands out in the open source community. Open source began, after all, as a counterpoint to the mainstream commercial technology industry and it is no surprise that some advocates find it difficult to take a more commercial approach.

For Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal, nor is it surprising that commercial entities like to do business with other commercial entities.

“The two most important things about an open source product are the licensing structure and the culture of the development team behind the code,” he says. Smaller companies firms faced with the research required for any major purchase would find a commercial presence reassuring.

For open source to expand into the mass market, it cannot remain the preserve of the technical elite. It needs to be easy to support and to have a reliable update schedule. Without these familiar accoutrements, it can be an intimidating prospect.

Shuttleworth has no doubt that open source should become a mass market tool, and Canonical is the way he wants to make that happen.

Holt says: “Canonical does go beyond the geek. The way we present the technology to new prospects is adapted to the way they are running their business.”

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