Red Hat has launched its long-awaited application partner programme, allowing users to buy a wide variety of open source software from a single site - and moreover, to receive support for the whole set-up from a single company.

The launch marks Red Hat's effort to bring some coherence and ease-of-use to the varied world of open source software, something that a number of companies have attempted in various ways over the years. Red Hat's dominant market position could, however, make RHX into a force to be reckoned with, according to industry observers.

It also makes Red Hat's position more competitive with regard to Microsoft and Novell's SuSE Linux, although it also brings Red Hat more directly into competition with allies such as Oracle, IBM and SAP.

The Linux heavyweight announced Red Hat Network (RHX) in March when launching Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, and made the launch public on Thursday at its Red Hat Summit in San Diego.

The network, which features software from 14 partners ranging from CRM to systems monitoring, lets Red Hat customers buy software under a standardised subscription agreement like that which governs Red Hat's own core products.

Consolidated billing covers the complete application stack, and Red Hat itself will provide a single point of contact for support, while coordinating with vendor partners for more complicated issues.

The site itself, a bit like an for open source, provides users with application profiles, user ratings and reviews, free trials and online purchase options.

Customers can also buy RHX software through some Red Hat resellers, which can provide additional support services, Red Hat said.

Companies providing software include prominent open source vendors such as Alfresco, CentricCRM, EnterpriseDB, Jaspersoft, MySQL, SugarCRM and Zimbra, with offerings including content management, CRM, ERP, messaging, databases, backup and recovery and systems monitoring.

The service is only available in North America initially, but Red Hat said it plans to open RHX overseas by the end of the year.