Customers of GAF3 Solutions tell the technology services provider that they want to use Linux because they hear it's reliable, robust and relatively inexpensive. But a customer recently baulked at the one-month delay to install a Linux server. Why such a long wait? GAF3's Linux expert was overextended, says GAF3's president and CEO George A. Fitch III.

High demand has Fitch wondering if he should charge extra for Linux-related work. If he does, he wouldn't be alone.

Linux is gaining ground so quickly that some companies are having a hard time finding enough people to handle Linux-related work. And those they do find charge a premium, according to The Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston. Skilled Linux administrators in major metropolitan markets command 20 per cent to 30 per cent salary premiums over their Unix and Windows counterparts — a fact that could diminish the cost savings that many companies bank on when they switch to Linux.

"It's really hard to find good, qualified help that doesn't charge you so much," says Laura DiDio, an analyst at Yankee Group.

Not all IT managers concur with that assessment, but they do agree that the growth of Linux requires a retooling of tech workers. They can't throw their Windows people into Linux projects without additional training, and though Unix staffers can pick up Linux more quickly, even they need time to get up to speed.

The goods
Linux experts and enthusiasts cite a litany of skills that companies need for Linux systems work. Experience with programming and documentation is key. The ability to edit files and modify source code is important, too. Management experience is another plus.

Those skills aren't overly difficult to find, says Michael J. Ciaraldi, a computer science professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. But other skills - namely expertise in networking and graphics - aren't so easy to locate.

"Another skill in Linux is you have to be willing to ask other people for help," Ciaraldi adds. For those who do seek help, there are Web sites and user groups that share information on how to use and modify Linux.

DiDio compares the skills needed for Linux today to those sought for network administrators 15 or 20 years ago. "What you're basically looking for is that eclectic network administrator or software developer from circa 1988 — someone who knows lots of different things," she says.

While some say the lack of personnel with Linux expertise affects the rate at which companies adopt the open-source system, others say IT departments are finding the skills they need without much extra effort or additional pay.

"If you have someone who has experience with other operating systems, I don't think it's all that difficult switching over to Linux," Ciaraldi says. "Conceptually, the commands are the same, the structure is similar. It's just learning what the exact commands are to accomplishing various tasks."

Tom Pratt, IT manager at Coastal Transportation, a shipping company in Seattle, agrees. He oversees a mixed environment that includes seven Linux servers and two Linux desktops. Pratt says he had no problem learning Linux, and he wouldn't expect to encounter any problems finding skilled help if necessary. A Unix administrator could easily evolve into a Linux administrator with self-directed training, Pratt says. "If you can read, that's the primary skill you need," he adds.

Not so fast
Not all companies are comfortable moving ahead with Linux without skilled workers, however. Ciaraldi remembers one New Jersey company, which was working with Worcester Polytechnic students, that decided against a Linux server when it realised it didn't have in-house Linux expertise.

And for companies that like flexible IT staffs, Linux can present a problem. "The hardest thing I'm finding is someone who is very good in Linux and can support Windows," says Dan Agronow, vice president of technology at The Weather Channel Interactive, or Weather.com, in Atlanta.

Agronow says he hasn't had any trouble finding staffers with Linux skills, but those with both Linux expertise and Windows skills are rare. "Most people aren't as broad as that," he says.

Like others, Agronow says he believes someone with Unix experience can easily make the transition to Linux, but he suggests that the significant differences between Windows and Unix/Linux could keep some companies from adopting Linux. "If you were an all-Windows shop, maybe you don't have the contacts to hire a Linux person," he says.

Besides, companies want more than Linux skills, experts say. They want business experience, too. "It's certainly possible to hire junior systems administrators who have great knowledge in Linux," says Mark Mellis, a consultant at SystemExperts, a provider of network security consulting services.

"The place where you run into trouble is typically they know the technical bits, but they don't understand the business," he says. "They understand the details of the implementation, but they don't understand the greater architectural details or the big picture. That's why they're junior people."

Even companies that rely on their senior Unix workers for help with Linux systems are encountering problems, DiDio says. "There's a presumption that if these guys could do Unix, then Linux should not be that much of a stretch for them. So they're throwing them into the trenches," but they're not always prepared to handle all the tinkering that needs to be done, she says.

The famously collaborative Linux community tries to pooh-pooh this, according to DiDio. "They'll say, 'We have thousands of developers who will jump in and help out' " via Linux chat rooms and Web sites, she says. "While that sounds very nice, that's not going to take the place of skilled in-house staff."

For now
While Unix people may be able to make the transition to Linux over time, the shortage of skilled Linux personnel today is forcing some companies to look to vendors for help. But DiDio says even the big Linux distributors like Red Hat and Novell "don't have thousands of tech support people" to meet growing demand for Linux-related services.

DiDio cites the case of a major stock exchange that switched from Unix to Linux. The organisation had to default to its hardware vendor, HP, for installation help and service. "This is how people are going to make their money on Linux - selling the premium technical service and support," she says.

And while that window of opportunity won't last forever, it may exist for the foreseeable future.

"I think there will be more demand as deployment continues," says Dick Mackey, principal at SystemExperts. "And I think the demand will increase before the supply of skilled people will be available. It will be a good market for those people."

Meanwhile, companies are trying to close the Linux skills gap by sending staffers for training and hiring new people specifically for their Linux experience. "And some of the smaller companies are asking employees to go out and teach themselves," says Ciaraldi.

Red Hat's VP of global learning services Peter Childers says he has seen demand for the company's Linux training and certification courses increase dramatically. Today, there are more than 12,800 Red Hat Certified Engineers and 5,900 Red Hat Certified Technicians, a designation launched in January 2003. And 97 per cent of people attending training are sponsored by their companies, Childers says.

As manager of technical support at Boscov's Department Store, Joe Poole oversees about 85 IT staffers, five of whom maintain the company's Linux system. He sent two staffers to a one-week Linux training course run by IBM, paying about $5,000 for both to attend. Those two workers now train colleagues in Linux.

"There's a scarcity of people who are absolutely trained in Linux, and that's all they do," Poole says. "But there's no scarcity of people who can pick it up."

Even so, Linux personnel seem increasingly valuable. Regardless of how you increase the level of Linux expertise in your IT shop, beware of companies that might try to raid your staff, particularly competitors in your industry, DiDio says. "Make [workers] sign on the dotted line if you train them that they'll stay with you for a year or two," she says.