Userful Inc, Linux Computers and Administration Company

Posted by tadelste on Mar 27, 2006 10:51 AM EDT
LXer; By Herschel Cohen
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Useful, the company might be described by what some commentators describe as a despicable business model: hybrid. Partly Free - Linux, partly proprietary - their administration code. Nonetheless, Useful's Ben Li was refreshing open in his initial email pointing out they were only a partly "Open Source" company. Despite your reservations give our interviewee the benefit of the doubt and listen to his words. You may wish at the end that there more companies like his or hope they had even greater success. If not, rant afterwards.

Introduction:

[LXer:] I would strongly suggest prior to reading this interview that the reader visit the Useful site to at take a cursory look at the product. Furthermore, I suggest examining the recommended industries they think where their system will work. Notice this is a single server system attached to about ten dumb terminal or nodes or stations (as they prefer). While this system relies heavily upon Linux as the OS the administrative software is closed, proprietary source. Hence, this vendor is not a total win for the views of many writing or as readers of this site. Nonetheless, there are still positive aspects that make this a net gain for Linux per se and potentially other Free/Open Source Software. As a concomitant result it creates another headache for Microsoft and Apple. Neither of the latter may assume that many niche markets are theirs with no required effort. Moreover, even with effort and margin reductions some fraction may yet be lost. Furthermore, some of the methods employed by the aforementioned large OS vendors can be used against them, i.e. site software license audits. As school board or other government entity hit with these quasi-legal fines can find the officials that agreed to those terms under heavy questioning by its citizenry. They would rightly have to defend their software choice that puts tax payer funds at additional risk when comparable software is available on much more amenable terms is readily available. If a few such officials were to lose their office due to an election defeat, the message could travel far. In addition, buying of official complicity in government acquisitions would become much more expensive proposition for those that support their marketing by such methods.

Interview:

[Note: Ben Li is the Useful Inc. representative that contacted our Editor-in-Chief and is the respondent to the interview reproduce below.]

Since this is going to follow the form of a new vendor interview, I want to begin by asking you a bit about the history of your company:

[LXer:] When was you company established and did it begin with the current product line, i.e. a multiport of Linux operating as a server to a small set of dumb (or are they smart) terminals where the administrative functionality controls the access rights and functionality of each unit essentially independently?

[Ben Li:] The company was founded in 1999 we began development work in early 2000, but there were many delays along the way and did not launch our first multi-station product until 2002. The idea of multi-station Linux was there pretty much from the outset, however in the early days we also did a fair amount of web-development consulting to help pay the bills.

[LXer:] What is the company heritage, meaning were the principles more familiar with Unix type operating systems or did they come from mid range or mainframe proprietary server backgrounds, e.g. DEC?

[Ben Li:] Linux has been our primary OS both on the desktop and on the server since founding the company in 1999. Some of our consulting work was on Solaris web servers but soon switched it over to Linux. For us the writing was on the wall even as early as 1999 that the future would be in Linux and Open Source-based solutions.

[LXer:] Earlier, I had been looking at your site and I ran across a part of a page that indicated your company had solutions for the academic area split between K-12 and universities. Lets begin by asking about the K-12 market.

[LXer:] From my observations I tend to think you will find it difficult to crack this market open without extreme effort due to the inherent bias by those in charge towards Microsoft and Apple. Moreover, the students already run circles around those in charge with some of the former playing with school district computers as if they and their content were entirely public domain. Furthermore, it must be assumed that a subset of these students are using their root privileges to alter data to their advantage. At the most innocuous level as seen through my daughter's eyes the computer classes are required, however, she had concluded she learns nothing new. Hence, in many cases you are not dealing with an informed buyer.

[Ben Li:] I'm not sure what your question is, but I'll try to address some of those topics.

[Useful, Ben Li:] Userful has built a Linux-based platform for deploying provisioned desktop computers. We've seen some success in education, but the education market is by no means the focus of our company. Userful solutions have deployments in libraries, point of service, job centers, hospitality, military, and many other sectors.

[Ben Li:] However, lets talk about education. From our experience (and our partners' experiences) selling desktop Linux into education is a unique but achievable challenge. The proposition we offer educators is quite simple (assuming a large supply of used or donated monitors) would you rather have four Microsoft or Apple computers or 30 Linux / Userful systems. When looked at as a global problem, inadequate supply of workstations is the most pressing problem facing educators who want to teach children how to use computers.

[Ben Li:] Though the default is Linux, our software is able to serve up both Windows and Mac OS desktops, using remote desktops protocols and vitalization. We've found that customers tend to buy desktop Linux as a ’¡Ècomplete solution’¡É that works right out of the box with their existing computers and networks.

[Ben Li:] Not all our customers purchase it this way, but those who do don't have the type of security issues you raise, as the system is thoroughly locked down. Many of our customers never receive the root password of the box. We take care of it for them through our automated remote management system.

[Ben Li:] In a well configured and maintained network (Linux, Windows, or otherwise), local root should not be an issue. In the case of our software, DiscoverStation ships as a fully managed and locked down environment by default, so very little abuse can occur except to non-backed-up files in the user's own account. With Desktop Server and Desktop Multiplier, security policy is entirely up to the system administrator.

[LXer:] What message do you try to impart to the "decision makers": security and/or administrative ease?

[Ben Li:] Administrative ease typically resonates more strongly with our customer base, however both form a strong part of our value proposition. Both of those benefits are results of using a managed, security hardened desktop platform. However, the decision makers often lack a strong technical background, so we often distill the items you listed, along with the rest of the feature set and our 10-to-1 desktop advantage into a greater than 50% TCO reduction for computer desktops.

[LXer:] How do you counter their predilection towards Windows (or the Mac)? We've found that it takes a better solution at half the cost to get someone to switch away from their habitual desktop system. As linux grows in popularity and reputation, these numbers will reduce, but the ’¡Èbeter solution’¡É will always be required. Linux is not better in every area yet. As a company we focus on selling desktop linux into those areas where it is better. The Linux software stack is functionally equivalent to Windows or Mac. Traditional single station linux offers nominal advantages over Windows and Mac. However with Userful's Desktop Multiplier approach adds unique TCO advantages and our central management system adds even more.

[Ben Li:] We also offer the option of delivering Windows or Mac desktops using our solution as a commodity software-based thin client.

[LXer:] What has your experience been trying to sell into this market?

[Ben Li:] Some recent news about one of our partners who sells our product into education is at: Omni Technology Solutions Inc.

[Ben Li:] We will make an announcement about the largest desktop Linux deployment in recent months in Africa very shortly.

[LXer:] What are you going to base future success on in this market?

[Ben Li:] Much of the potential education market consists of new desktops in environments where computer hardware, software licenses and electricity are rather expensive. Our products are attractive on all those fronts, and has been proven by thousands of end users world wide as an effective desktop solution.

[LXer:] Do the people you deal with either know or care your system platform runs off of Linux?

[Ben Li:] Most end users don't know or care that it is Linux. However the customers (who actually purchase the system) are a mix. Many like the product specifically because it's Linux and they're savvy enough to understand the technical, security and management benefits. The remainder know it's not Windows, but it looks and feels like Windows and offers a better solution at a better price.

[Ben Li:] I have noticed that while there is mention entities that might be fairly large, they are targeted in niche areas where you product fits. Skip any of these next three if they are to far into the future:

[LXer:] Are you thinking of creating a product that might work at large corporate sites, based upon Linux?

[Ben Li:] Managed enterprise desktops is an emerging opportunity a market that looks like an interesting fit for Desktop Server/DiscoverStation. Our product development efforts and expertise have strongly positioned us to succeed in that market.

[LXer:] How likely do you think these entities would allow off site, third party administration?

[Ben Li:] Desktop outsourcing with secure, remote management isn't a new concept. If any part of the idea was fatally objectionable, IBM, EDS, Unisys and the others would have given up on desktop outsourcing and remote support years ago. The main concern with outsourcing is the perceived loss of control. Our customers actually have more control over the appearance, behavior and functionality of their desktops by outsourcing to us.

[LXer:] I think many would be reluctant to grant the essentially unlimited access and concomitant lose of control, hence, are you thinking of building an administrative package for corporate IT use, where you stand aside?

[Ben Li:] There's no single solution that would work for all customers. Our current customers have the option to configure and configure as much or as little of the platform as desired. The vast majority choose to use the basic administration and configuration tools for fine tuning, letting us do the heavy lifting.

Summary:

[LXer:] My regret, if any about this interview is that I would have hoped there were more companies out there like Useful or their sales volume were larger. Not myself ever having been a successful business person, I will not push my views upon them how to make them a break through outfit. One should recognize that business models are not dealt out like a compounder in a pharmacy pushing out medications to the ill. Success models rise and fall, new products require new approaches where timing can out weigh product quality. I am sure, however, my compunctions to hold much sway with some even having less credentials than I when laying down their judgments for all to heed.

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There is a completely open source alternative - Groovix SLIM groovix 1 3,797 May 23, 2006 10:06 PM
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