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As LinuxWorld Expo gets under way in Boston on Monday, VARs are eyeing a series of recent developments that are moving the open-source operating system further into the mainstream. Indeed, a broadened focus beyond the OS itself and toward Linux-based applications will be emphasized in keynotes scheduled on Tuesday from Novell CEO Jack Messman, Hewlett-Packard Linux guru Martin Fink, and Computer Associates' new chief executive, John Swainson.

The upshot is that this year, Linux should become a driver for a solid services business, so solution providers would be well-served to position themselves accordingly.

"Expand your addressable wallet," Fink, whose official title is vice president for Linux at HP, advises VARs. "If you're doing only Windows or NetWare, add Linux. Focus your energy on playing a key role in integrating components for your customers. I think there's a huge amount of opportunity for the smaller reseller to take on a major role in integration."

At Novell, a boost for Linux-savvy resellers is upcoming in the form of planned enhancements to the company's PartnerNet programs. In addition, a Linux distribution tuned specifically for the SMB market is in the offing.

Specifically, Novell plans to add to its PartnerNet 2005 program an effort to certify VARs in six technology specialties, which they can use as a drawing card to bring in consulting business. The specialties are resource management, secure-identity management, Web server, and collaboration and network services, plus a general Linux category.

"The biggest benefit is that a reseller will be listed in our partner locator as a specialist," says Starla Cox, Novell's North American channel director.

In a bid to broaden its base of potential customers, Novell is also keyed up about its plans to pursue what it calls "market plays" with its partners in six key vertical areas -- government, education, retail distribution, health care, financial services and manufacturing.

"It's not a packaged solution," Cox says. "It's a methodology and a menu of ingredients that would allow a solution provider or a Novell consultant to deliver a set of services and products to meet a customer's specific needs."

In practical terms, the end result will be solutions that comprise an OS, middleware and line-of-business applications. As the effort evolves, Cox says Novell will fine-tune the "plays" and then extend them to the channel, where applicable.

IBM, another vendor with a major Linux presence, also intends to help the channel take advantage of the shift toward open-source applications. Big Blue is porting many of its middleware solutions over to Linux.

"We're seeing Linux being used more and more for industry-specific solutions," says Adam Jollans, the Linux strategy manager for IBM's software group. "It's not just generic file-and-print servers, or even generic ERP applications. It's being used for risk management in financial services and in oil-prospecting clusters. This trend is part of Linux moving up the stack."

Indeed, ISVs of all stripes are rushing to port their applications to Linux. Simultaneously, the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP or Perl) is becoming ubiquitous. The upshot? This year, it won't be as difficult a trick for VARs to start building solid services and consulting businesses around the open-source operating system.

"Educate yourself on the application stack," adds Bill Weinberg, architecture specialist at the Open Source Development Labs, Beaverton, Ore. "There are lots of open-source components you can be integrating."

"Align yourselves with some applications that are complementary to your portfolio," adds Roger Luca, a senior vice president at Mainline Information Systems, an IBM solution provider in Tallahassee, Fla. However, Luca notes that that's easier said than done.

On the applications front, nowhere has Linux received stronger validation than it has via Oracle's success with Linux ports of its database and application server. Oracle says its 2003 Linux revenue, the last year for which it has figures available, rose 360 percent.

"Oracle's coming of age on Linux was an important factor," Luca agrees. And as more such mainstream apps move to Linux, VARs are finding that customers are more receptive to the OS. For example, Luca points to the Idaho State Controller's Office, which, as a customer of Mainline, moved its Notes server to Linux and added in some custom applications.

"It demonstrated that they were confident Linux was enterprise-ready, so they felt comfortable enough to go off and do some business-oriented apps," Luca says.

"Companies are trying to integrate Linux within their current environments," adds Frank Basanta, director of technology at Systems Solutions, a New York-based Linux integrator. "They're not just looking to Linux as a replacement for a file-and-print server. They're starting to look at it for a robust application or a development server."

Certifications also have emerged as an important sales tool that resellers can use to tout their competence to prospective customers. CompTIA, for example, offers the Linux+ Certification, which has become something of an industry standard. Open to individuals with at least six months of practical Linux experience, Linux+ is awarded upon passing a vendor-neutral exam that tests basic knowledge of administration, configuration, networking and troubleshooting.

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