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One of the arguments against using Open Source is that there is no "support". However, do big vendors (e.g. Microsoft) really offer "support" of any kind? I'm sure there is some sort of 4-figure-per-hour "paid support" option out there, but is that really an "option" for any problem short of one that is going to bankrupt your business?

To put it more concretely... I buy a Microsoft product... it has a bug... now what? And how is that better than what I get from Open Source?

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@SpashHit you're very specific about which big vendor (Microsoft) but very vague about the open source counterpart; which makes that part of your question rather general. I mean, for some open source projects there is hardly any support while for others it's pretty good. –  stijn Feb 14 '11 at 21:23
    
The "no support" argument against Open Source is a fallacy - while most open source solutions have free community support, many also have paid corporate support (not always from the original developers, though) (think MySQL, RedHat, Drupal, Qt) - in fact, free distribution and paid support has been RedHat's model since they started. –  HorusKol Feb 14 '11 at 23:20
    
This is more of a comment than an answer, Microsoft's XBOX support is superb and free. About a year ago I spent about half an hour on the phone with them while they helped me configure my particular router to access XBOX Live! Very impressed! –  JMK Feb 1 '12 at 16:21
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closed as not constructive by Mark Trapp Feb 1 '12 at 21:06

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7 Answers

Yes they offer support, but many not offer a fix. A few years back we ran into a problem with a DES encryption bug for which a trivial fix was well known. Microsoft documented it and reported the resolution as will not fix. We had to disable the encryption bug fix to allow Internet Explorer to work.

I had one product with support where we had several bug reports closed with the response that the problem would be fixed in the next release. I finally asked when the next release was due. The response was "We aren't planning to ever to another release. I terminated support. If I had got this response for an open-source project, I likely could have fixed the problems.

Another project, we often got asked to report what the solution was when we found it. "So we will both know the solution." Support did get better over time, and they did offer solutions. In one case, I got to talk to the developer of some code we hoped to get a database handle from.

I have also dealt with support to get known patches released immediately when software was broken. In another case with the same supplier, I had to send a multi-threading problem back twice. The first fix reduced the frequency of the problem significantly, and the second appeared to resolve it entirely. Both fixes were delivered outside the release cycle.

Many open-source projects are available with paid support. This is one of the ways the projects get funded. This is in addition to the often excellent unpaid support that is often available. In tricky cases, it helps to see what the code is doing in your organization. With open-source this is relatively easy to determine.

EDIT: Most of the open-source software I use works so well I haven't needed support. A few of those where I have needed help include MySQL, Apache, Ubuntu, and Firefox. In almost all cases I have been able to get my answers from the support documentation and forums. I generally find that patches when required are made available very quickly.

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Can you offer examples of "excellent unpaid support"? –  apoorv020 Feb 18 '11 at 6:23
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In general, I think the lack of good documentation/support is what turns me off most about open source software. As ethel mentioned, the level of documentation surrounding windows and other microsoft products is outstanding. Search for any action in window's help and support (turn off updates, for example) and you will get well written articles with hyperlinks. Do the same in linux, and I doubt you would get anything. (My experience is mainly limited to Ubuntu, supposedly one of the most popular and usable desktop linux variations).

Onto the question of fixing bugs, I do acknowledge that Microsoft does not set a great standard. But neither does open source necessarily. The few bugs that I followed up on with open source were never resolved - this was in popular projects like Ubuntu, Evolution etc. Either they decided they were "low priority" or "could not be reproduced". That does not mean I went up and fixed them(I have neither the time nor the patience), I just switched to alternatives. The only time I contacted Microsoft about a bug, I was atleast written back to with an investigation inside 48 hours.

svn is a command line tool used by millions, but it seems to give one error message for a large variety of causes, and I thus I can't solve a problem I am facing with it. I can't really find any help on the internet for my particular case. Microsoft products on the other hand, usually return quite specific error codes so you an hunt them online.

It took me about a month once to set up a working tomcat server along with mysql. Even the examples supplied in the tutorial were not working. The documentation was not even compatible with the current version. (I finally needed the help of a friend to get it running). When I set up a IIS server and MS-SQL server, it took me less than a day.

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Did you try asking in online forums, email lists or IRC channels when you had your open source issues? –  JoelFan Feb 18 '11 at 14:45
    
Sometimes. Most of the time I am facing issues, I usually tend to search around using google for fixes. –  apoorv020 Feb 18 '11 at 16:47
    
I had issues with a new Linux Mint 12 installation and there were plenty of people on the official IRC willing to wade in and help. –  Alan B Feb 1 '12 at 14:46
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The support stream for an enterprise is significant. While a small business may not tend to take advantage of the services from a company like Microsoft they do exist and should be leveraged.

At a previous place of employment (small business < 250 employees) we were writing a SL 2 client which was consuming web services where the WSDL was generated via Axis2. The back end was Java and therefore the server side was making use of Axis2 as the web services framework.

As we began to build out the client and make use of the web service it became readily apparent that something was amiss however we had no idea why. Inheritance was not working as defined in the WSDL and on the surface appeared to be a SL bug; especially due to the infancy of SL at the time. We opened a support ticket via our MSDN subscription to begin investigation. Microsoft was extremely knowledgeable and helpful in addressing the issue. They engaged the needed team members from SL and figured out the problem. These are engineers close to the product; this is not a Level 1 resource at a call center moving through a screen reading prompts to you.

The problem was with the messaging structure within Axis2. It was reversed and did not adhere to the spec. Microsoft's stack was following the spec while Axis2 was not. Microsoft provided the needed documentation and tracked down the bug all while I continued working on the product. I was able to file a bug against the Axis2 project which took numerous months to become part of the 1.5 release. While the source was available to me a business at this scale does not have the manpower to simply allow a developer to go off and investigate the issue on a 3rd party library and supply a patch.

I also received emails from varying high level individuals within the infancy of SL including Scott Gu in attempt to make things right and assure our needs were met on varying issues.

Support from a big vendor such as Microsoft, HP, IBM, and Dell is real. When an enterprise becomes tightly coupled with a vendor there is often times nothing that vendor won't do to assure that the enterprises needs are met.

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That all requires scale though. You say "small business < 250 employees", what about small business less than 10? The cost of support is then relatively unbearable and the interest the big companies will take in providing it are far less. –  Orbling Feb 14 '11 at 21:58
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@Orbling A bit confused by your comment. The company which was was < 250 employees had no special affiliation with Microsoft. It was a standard MSDN subscription which the business purchased +-15 of. In addition if your company is < 10 there is an entire program dedicated to you from the likes of Microsoft...BizSpark. The support exists regardless of business size. –  Aaron McIver Feb 14 '11 at 22:25
    
Yes, I know that, I meant the cost of it is relatively high against budgets. Small firms tend to equal small budgets. –  Orbling Feb 14 '11 at 23:37
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However, do big vendors (e.g. Microsoft) really offer "support" of any kind?

Depending on what you call support, but I argue yes, absolutely. Their evangelists are phenomenal. Two weeks ago one of the MS staff set up a meeting with my team for free to go over the problems we have and next steps. She also offered to come back in 6 months to follow up. I don't know about their phone call support, but at the last 2 companies I've worked for their employees have always gone out of their way to help. Look at Eric Lippert, he routinely answers questions about C# on SO free of charge. This has always been the case. I've never had an issue where I talked to them in person or online and said, "I have a problem with X," and they either no the answer, or know who to ask and get back to me.

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typo: ague -> argue –  Christopher Mahan Feb 14 '11 at 21:11
    
+1, it's good that you mention evangelists as opposed to just support engineers. MS and other big companies have a fleet of people who are paid to actively roam around and solicit feedback and complaints from customers in order to fix them as fast as possible and make sure they are happy. –  nlawalker Feb 14 '11 at 21:12
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Yes, there is support available. My husband used to work as a support technician for Microsoft about 10 years ago. He was trained to work with people who don't have a high level of technical knowledge, and supported average end-users without any special "paid support" options. You can start with http://support.microsoft.com/ to figure out what is available these days; they have even more options available then they did back then.

MS has more than just straight technical support, also. All MS software can be "hotfixed", which is annoying when it happens so frequently, but also much better than having to re-download and re-install things manually. Also, they have a wealth of online documentation support available since MS hires many technical writers - something most Open Source projects have less of. Their automatic problem-detection tools tend to be better, too - you know, the "Does this fix your problem" windows and things that note when your machine crashes and then go out and look for software updates that might fix that issue. Technical users can sometimes also use forums where they can talk to MS folks directly for some products.

As for whether this should be a major factor in a purchase decision, I think that depends on your level of skill. For a general OS or major software application for a non-technical user, this support is a big deal and the main reason I tend not to recommend open-source products to non-technical users (with some exceptions . . . Open Office is fine for most people).

For a technical person, it depends on many, many variables - how difficult the domain is, how skilled they are at finding their own answers, how different the support levels are for that product, and so on. Generally, most of the people I expect to see using this site are good at helping themselves and locating other non-official sources of support (think SO), so technical support is not a big help. I know MS support is not my first stop; Google is. Often this ends up leading me to MS KB articles, however, whereas open source software usually leads to forums or SO. If you are an early adopter, however, the support from the MS option might matter more as there won't be as much out on the web for the early open source products.

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+1 For online documentation. It's crazy how much support is available in windows software compared to linux. –  apoorv020 Feb 18 '11 at 6:14
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Yes here is the website: http://support.microsoft.com/. All consumer products are supported by experts by both email and phone.

Please note that a part of the professional support is also provided by the millions of Microsoft's partners worldwide. Mainly for enterprise products.

They also provide voucher cards to get phone support for consumer products.

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However, the partners do not have the ability to fix bugs –  JoelFan Feb 15 '11 at 22:34
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Depends on the bug. If its part of the blackbox code then no but they can usually find a work around or double check your configuration is correct. –  DarkStar33 Feb 22 '11 at 23:56
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I have used Microsoft support through the 'free' incidents included with an MSDN subscription and have always had a great experience with it. From uploading large crash-dumps and being told the specific issue to one time being put in contact with one of the developers of the particular piece of code that was causing an issue.

So, yeah, I would say they offer support, good support even. Now, if that is better than what Open Source offers, I think it would depend on what you are looking for support on (how active is the community around the product, etc.)

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Having used paid support for MS SQL, I have to say I found it pretty outstanding. We had Microsoft people who remoted into our servers, and spent hours working on a issue till there was a resolution. To me, it felt like they went way beyound what you'd find out other so called support centers. –  Chris Feb 14 '11 at 21:40
    
Paid support can be really nice, but it is not restricted to non-Open Source products. At a former employer we had MySql's Monty-himself log into our database servers, optimizing them. –  LennyProgrammers Mar 15 '11 at 16:30
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