The Small Biz Guide to Understanding Linux & Open Source

Monday Jan 6th 2014 by Carla Schroder

Linux and open source software are mainstream, you're already using them, and you need to make them part of your business strategy. We help explain what it all means.

Doubtless you've heard of Linux, free software, and open source software. It's important for small business owners to understand the finer points of these, because knowing what they are, and what role they play, is crucial to developing a smart business strategy.

Let's start with a quick overview: Linux is a computer operating system, like Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Unix. In fact, Linux is a clone of Unix. Unix is the venerable, battle-tested operating system that has powered the world's servers—from mainframes down to small department servers—since the early 1970s. There are many different variants of Unix. Some are open source and free of cost, such as FreeBSD and OpenBSD, and some are closed-source commercial systems such as IBM's AIX and Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX. Apple's Mac OS X is a certified Unix variant, while Linux is a non-certified Unix-like operating system.

Who Uses Linux? You Do

Linux has displaced Unix, and to a lesser degree Windows, all over the planet. Linux literally powers the Internet. Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Netflix are all Linux-powered. The world's 500 fastest supercomputers are 96 percent Linux. What else runs on Linux?

  • Your Android smartphone or tablet
  • Your set-top TV box
  • Computer networking routers, firewalls, and Internet gateways
  • Automotive entertainment systems
  • Factory automation
  • The Large Hardon Collider
  • The London Stock Exchange
  • IBM mainframes

And much, much more: all Linux. Linux is main stream and has been for several years. It runs on everything from tiny embedded devices to the world's biggest and busiest datacenters.

The biggest recent technological advance—the Cloud—runs on Linux. I know, you're sick of hearing "cloud," and it's true that the marketing peeps have beaten the word to death. But it really is a giant leap forward in managing the datacenter, and it opens up a world of flexible, efficient possibilities that reduces costs while offering more and better functionality.

The single arena where it does not dominate is the PC desktop, which is still owned by Microsoft Windows. Which is a shame, as Windows remains a big security risk, and Linux makes a great PC and laptop operating system. It's stable, secure, and you can download a wealth of high-quality applications with a click.

The Many Flavors of Linux

Unlike the restrictive monocultures of Windows and OS X, there is a lot competition in the Linux world. Linux comes in hundreds of different variants (which are called "distributions"), and they offer something for everyone. UbuntuRed Hat, and SUSE are enterprise Linux distributions with commercial support. Ubuntu is also available for free, and some of the other top free-of-cost distributions include FedoraMageiaMintopenSUSE, and Debian. You can learn more about these distributions at Distrowatch

You can freely download and install just about any Linux distribution, and it's pretty easy. But what if you want to buy computers with Linux preloaded? Take a look at 5 Top Linux Computer Vendors for Small Business to learn where to get Linux already installed and configured on computers.

Open Source and Free Software Explained

Now let's talk about open source and free software. These are terms with specific meanings, and with governing bodies behind them. In the beginning was the Free Software movement, which is based on these principles:

"Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this."

The most widely-used Free Software license is the GNU General Public license, the GPL. There are several others you can read about here.

The word "free" is more often interpreted as free of cost, rather than free as in freedom, so it is an endless source of confusion. Though it is true that most free and open source software is available free of cost in one form or another. Even the big-time commercial Linux distributions like Red Hat and Ubuntu have to make their source code available. Consequently there are dozens of derivatives: for example CentOS and Scientific Linux are popular Red Hat clones, and Mint, Kubuntu, and Mythbuntu are popular Ubuntu spinoffs.

The Open Source Initiative oversees open source software licenses. The Open Source Definition is similar to the Free Software Foundation's four freedoms. As always happens in computer nerd-land, there have been endless debates over the differences between the two, and which one is better or more pure or what-have-you.

For you, the small business owner figuring out your IT strategy, the differences don't matter. Because when you contrast these principles and licenses with the typical closed, proprietary software license that is full of restrictions, dire warnings and punishments, they both offer you considerably more value. Phil Hughes, the founding publisher of Linux Journal is famously quoted as saying, "Closed source is like buying a car with the hood welded shut".

Free/Open Source Software and Business Strategy

The only time you have to worry about the fine details of Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) licenses is if you develop software and release it for other people to use. Whatever you do in-house nobody knows and nobody cares. But if you release it, you'll need to be very careful about what F/OSS you build on, and how various components of your software are licensed.

Some licenses are incompatible, and you can't mix-and-match. You'll find expert help at the Open Source Initiative and the Free Software Foundation, so consult them first. If you—or your boss—feel a bit whiny about complying with F/OSS licenses, you might calculate how much it would cost you to develop from scratch, rather than having gigabytes of top-quality code to build on.

Which brings me to an overlooked but very important point: F/OSS is not a business model. It is a software development model. F/OSS vendors don't make money from selling software, but from selling support and custom engineering services. This is going to become more important in the future as software and computer systems become more complex; you're going to need expert support. Or, as a vendor, you're going to see expanding opportunities. To succeed in F/OSS you need to be better, and that is a big win for customers.

F/OSS offers many benefits. You can't get locked in, and code quality and security are superior because anyone can inspect the code, and anyone can offer fixes and improvements. "Many eyes make all bugs shallow." Even if you never read so much as a line of code yourself, you can rely on a global community of developers and users who do interact intimately with the source code; you benefit from peer review.

The rate of advancement, or innovation if you prefer (another perfectly good word that has been overused to death), is much faster with F/OSS because there are no corporate bureaucracy impediments. There is a culture of ethics and trust, so it's very rare that you'll hear of F/OSS being larded up with commercial crapware and spyware. The cost of F/OSS is nearly always less than comparable proprietary software, because development costs are lower.

For more information, news, how-tos, training, and Linux events, make a regular stop. is operated by the Linux Foundation, which is ground zero for Linux. All the major tech vendors (IBM, Dell, HP, Intel, Google, and many more) support it, and the foundation employs Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, and several other key Linux developers.

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.

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