Open Source Power for Small Business in 2014

Wednesday Jan 22nd 2014 by Carla Schroder
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In 2014, open source software offers small businesses more IT capabilities and services in the cloud.

The biggest impact that open source software offers small business in 2014 takes place in the cloud. Open source software powers the cloud—where you can take advantage of both hosted software and services, and hosted IT infrastructure (e.g., servers). We're already used to hosted services such as Web and mail hosting. They're convenient and cheap, and they prevent headaches.

What about running your small business without buying or maintaining a roomful of your own servers? Do you dream of not having to recruit and retain good tech talent? Can you run your shop with no on-premises servers at all—simply plug into some kind of hosted turnkey IT-in-a-box, and just buy smartphones, tablets, and PCs? The answer to all of these questions is yes…and no.

Cloud Services Defined

We're in the midst of a genuine tech revolution thanks to cloud technologies, which are possible because of open source software such as OpenStack and OpenShift, and Linux vendors like Red Hat and SUSE. The cloud makes it possible for hosting providers to offer more services than ever. Cloud services fall into three basic levels:

  • SaaS (software as a service): Email and Web hosting are good examples of SaaS. You don't have buy, install and run your own email and Web servers. You just set up an account with your host. Some everyday SaaS apps you might be using are Skype, Gmail, YouTube, and Dropbox
  • PaaS (platform as a service): PaaS virtualizes your development tools, if you have in-house software developers. All your developers need to develop custom software for your company is personal computers and access to your PaaS account
  • IaaS (infrastructure as a service): This is your virtual server or servers. They work just like physical servers, only they reside at your hosting provider's data center instead of in a room in your shop. You access them over an Internet connection

Outsourcing Small Business IT

First, consider whether you even want to outsource your IT. It's an attractive option if you can find service providers that offer what you need, and if you have sufficient network bandwidth that lets you work without going crazy waiting for pages to load. The hosting provider handles the burden of provisioning, maintenance, security, and bandwidth, which reduces your staffing needs. It will likely cost less than doing it yourself.

As the state of technology stands right now, you can outsource at least part of your IT to hosting providers and, as the cloud evolves, you'll have a wider range of services and products to choose from in the future. Let's look at a few different scenarios.

Google Business Solutions

If you use Google Apps for Business, you're already outsourcing some of your IT without thinking of it in those terms. Google offers an assortment of basic applications for reasonable prices: Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Hangouts (videoconferencing), Google Calendar, and Google+ (communities).

You get to use your own branding and domain name, and you don't need a tech guru to set it up and maintain it. The main pitfall is that Google makes it too easy to share everything with the world, so you have to be very careful with your access permissions. For some small shops, Google Apps for Business is all they need, and at $5/month per user it's a real deal.

OwnCloud for DIY Hybrid IT

Other examples of basic hosted services for small businesses include Dropbox, Swift, GoogleDocs, and Amazon S3. However they may not be suitable, because they don't meet compliance laws that require certain documents remain under your control. If your business has compliance or security concerns, you don't store sensitive documents on cloud services.

So what do you? Set up a private, on-premises cloud with OwnCloud. It isn't magic, but a moderately knowledgeable computer user can manage OwnCloud, and it provides secure file storage, sharing, sync, and management. It also syncs with Dropbox, Swift, GoogleDocs, and Amazon S3, so you can place your external storage under a good central management console. For more information, read our OwnCloud review.

Moving Beyond Basic Cloud IT Services

The previous options work well for small businesses with basic IT needs, but what do you do when you need more sophisticated cloud services? You look to enterprise vendors like SUSE and Red Hat.

SUSE Enterprise Linux

SUSE is one of the top enterprise Linux vendors. I asked Peter Chadwick, senior product manager, and Doug Jarvis, product marketing manager, for their wisdom on the subject. They reminded me of an important fact of life: There is no magic wand, and managing your computing infrastructure, whether on-premises or hosted, still requires knowledge and expertise.

As all forward-looking tech companies do, SUSE invests a lot of resources in developing cloud technologies. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition, because you can combine on-premises and hosted cloud services. Cloud services could be a good way to bootstrap a new venture while reducing capital costs. If you decide you need an on-premises datacenter, you can build that later, and either integrate it with your cloud-based services or replace them entirely.

SUSE offers excellent hosted services for companies with more complex needs and in-house technical staff. You can use SUSE Enterprise Linux on Amazon Web Services, and also on SUSE Studio, which is a brilliant development environment for applications and appliances. You can try them out for free

SUSE also has a large network of ISVs (Independent Service Vendors) and IHVs (Independent Hardware Vendors) that offer custom engineering services for shops that don't have enough in-house tech staff.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux

Red Hat is another top enterprise Linux vendor, and Dan Juengst, OpenShift product marketing manager, offers his perspective:

"A combination of the SaaS and PaaS services is a great solution for small and medium-sized businesses. Combining the SaaS business applications—such as customer relationship management (CRM) software—with the power of a PaaS platform lets businesses build their own custom applications. These apps can leverage data from databases within the PaaS or from the SaaS services.

As every business is unique, there may not be a SaaS application that meets every business computing need for the organization. PaaS provides an easy-to-use application development platform in the cloud that developers can use to create custom and/or integrated cloud applications. PaaS lets a business avoid running its own servers, even if it has to develop its own applications.

Red Hat's OpenShift Online PaaS service is an example of just such a solution. Within OpenShift a small business's IT team can develop applications in Java, Ruby, PHP, Python, Node.js, or even Perl. In addition, the developer can run a database for these applications to access within OpenShift as well. OpenShift offers MySQL, Postgresql, and MongoDB. A small business can build and run fully functional business applications on OpenShift without ever having to purchase a server.

What if you don't have the tech staff to do these things? Just like SUSE, Red Hat has a large network of ISVs and IHVs to help you."

Most Important Part of Your IT Strategy

The single most important component of your IT infrastructure is your people. Computing technologies, and especially open source, are advancing by leaps and bounds. We can do things now with little bitty devices that used to require room-sized computers. I fear we've been led to expect that as computers get better, humans can be dumber. I'm afraid we're not quite there yet, and it's more important than ever to be tech-savvy.

You don't have to be an engineer but, as a business owner or manager, you do need to know enough to make intelligent, informed decisions. The good news: you have plenty of free, helpful resources available. Vendor websites are treasure troves of great information: whitepapers, redbooks, videos, blogs, and case studies.

If you wanted to hear that this is the year of magic genie computing, that you don't have to hassle with pesky servers and weird tech staff, I'm here to tell you: it's not. If anything, the bar has been raised and you'll need more expertise.

However, all these new open source cloud technologies give your small business more powers and capabilities than ever, and they can be significant assets to your success.

Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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