Open-Source Options for Small Business

Thursday Apr 16th 2009 by Drew Robb
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We take a look at the current state of open source for small business, and experts offer advice on how, or whether, to take the open source plunge.

While open source software has been around for years, it often required specialized IT skills and a lot of babysitting. That, combined with a general lack of applications, was enough to keep most small businesses at bay. But thanks to the ongoing financial malaise, which appears to be acting as a catalyst toward adopting open source products, those days could well be over

“Our current economic crisis is the change agent that will drive open source to the next level of widespread adoption,” said Chip Nickolett, director of consulting services at Ingres Corp.

The good news is that now there are plenty of options for SMBs to ease themselves into the world of open source.

Desktop and Server

Perhaps the easiest place to begin with open source is at the desktop. Simply add a few Linux desktops and get a feel for how it works. Most organizations can do this without consuming too much time learning or administering it.

Unfortunately, the land of Linux can get pretty complex when you try to define all the possible choices. There are so many variants and offshoots that we decided to focus on only a handful of the more popular options.

SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop by Novell has a growing presence among SMBs. You can choose from a variety of subscriptions including: $50 per year per user with minimal support; $120 for a year with better support; and $220 per year for top-notch support. According to Grant Ho, a Novell product marketing manager, the software takes less than 30 minutes to install. Whitelaw Twining, a Canada-based law firm, replaced outdated Windows 98 and 2000 desktops with SUSE. This move saved the company 30 percent in hardware costs and reduced desktop maintenance time by 20 percent.

“Migrating from Windows 2000 to SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop is no more difficult for end users than migrating to Windows Vista,” said Richard Giroux, IT manager at Whitelaw Twining. “We did a little training with our users up front and have had almost no help-desk calls since.”

Other Linux desktop options include

  • Ubuntu for desktops won’t cost you a penny, and you’ll find support documentation on the Web site. You can buy fee-based phone support from third parties such as Canonical Ltd.

Ubuntu, Red Hat, Novell and others also offer plenty of options on the server side. Again, Ubuntu is free while Red Hat and Novell offer subscription-based pricing. Sun Microsystems also gives away the OpenSolaris operating systems.

Applications

The lack of applications used to be a major bone of contention for Linux. That barrier has largely vanished.

“Having an open environment with Linux gives us the opportunity to select from thousands of high-quality open source programs,” said Giroux. “One application for transcription playback has already saved us thousands of dollars.”

Here are a few examples. The Ingres database has a proven track record and was owned by software giant Computer Associates until a few years ago.  As a database alternative, there is MySQL. Firefox has become widely established as a rival browser to Internet Explorer. Mozilla also provides a popular e-mail platform. Visit www.SourceForge.net and you can find all sorts of open-source applications and projects.

But it is probably office productivity applications based on open source that have the most appeal for small businesses. OpenOffice is another good way to get one’s open-source feet wet.  This viable, free alternative to Microsoft Office works well and includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software and more. It doesn’t even require Linux to operate. Download it onto a Windows PC and try it out.

Sun offers an enhanced version of OpenOffice known as StarOffice that, for $35, you can download onto Windows, Mac, Solaris or Linux. Novell’s OpenOffice.org Novell Edition for Windows comes complete with Firefox, Novell Evolution e-mail and calendaring, Pidgin instant messaging, word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and database capabilities. Pricing works out at around $120 per desktop per year including support. 

Also worth a look is the free IBM Lotus Symphony, which includes applications similar to OpenOffice. 

Storage

More recently, plenty of open source storage applications have become available, though they’re more complex than and not as user-friendly as the productivity applications. On the backup side, there are Zmanda and Bacula. If you want to copy data between disk-based systems at different sites (known as mirroring), you can check out DRBD. You’ll find downloadable Network Attached Storage (NAS) software at FreeNAS.

If you want to get even fancier, Sun’s ZFS file system is available free for operating on the OpenSolaris platform. ZFS provides a high level of data integrity, mirroring data between sites for disaster recovery purposes, and it helps you build massive data repositories.

A competitor of ZFS for advanced storage functionality is Red Hat’s Global File System (GFS).  It offers storage virtualization features. Finally, there is the Linux Logical Volume Manager (LVM), which is used to build large disk-based storage systems.

But software such as ZFS, GFS and LVM is not something a business owner should fiddle with on his or her own. If you don’t have the IT staff to figure out this open source software, a ready-made storage appliance may be the answer.

“The use of open source-based appliances in the SMB market seems to be becoming more prevalent,” said Nickolett.

Sun, for example, has a range of Unified Storage Systems (formerly known as Amber Road) that have preinstalled OpenSolaris and ZFS. Sun has combined open source software with inexpensive servers to reduce storage costs and provide heavy-duty storage that is easy to manage. Sun partners greenBytes and Nexenta Systems provide an alternative to Sun-based hardware in this category.

“Amber Road is a NAS system essentially,” said David Trachy, a principal engineer at Sun. “We are certainly seeing more and more end users adopting open source.”

Like Nickolett, he wouldn’t expect SMBs to pick up open-source storage tools and cobble themselves together unless they are already technically sophisticated. Instead, he suggested a readymade appliance.

“There are many good open-source storage appliances around now, which means you don’t need to hire an expert to build one for you,” said Trachy. “Appliances drop the cost of storage and provide high performance.” 

One Sun small business customer is Digitar Inc. This e-mail processing company holds 50 TB of data for its customers by combining SUSE Linux, OpenSolaris and Sun hardware.

“Our entire operation is based on open source and the financial perspective is the biggest reason,” said Jason Williams, COO and CTO of Digitar. “But there are performance benefits too. ZFS has saved our behind more than once due to its mirroring capabilities.”

Open Source or Not?

Compared to a few years ago, the open source goody bag is impressive. And according to International Data Corp (IDC), Linux now accounts for 14 percent of all servers in use, so it’s obvious that open source is catching on in a big way.

But does that mean that all small businesses should rush forward and adopt it? Not necessarily.

“For some smaller business, particularly those that have IT experience, open source storage can be a good fit assuming it provides business and economic value,” said Greg Schulz, an analyst with StorageIO Group.

People who are more familiar with traditional environments that include products from Microsoft Dell, HP or IBM, however, open source should probably be implemented on a limited basis to see how well it does in specific areas – perhaps the desktop or office suite.

Schulz also suggested using a managed service provider or trusted reseller who is familiar with open source and can bring it into the company without overwhelming whatever limited IT resources exist.

“Avoid jumping on the open source bandwagon just because it’s open source,” said Schulz. “There should be an economic and functionality benefit for going open source. Look at support and maintenance costs as well as who will be maintaining the solutions over the next several years and their skill sets.”

Nickolett recommended that once SMBs gain more comfort with open source, they should create a plan to migrate 10 percent to 15 percent of their IT footprint to that platform as part of a strategic cost reduction effort. Such a move could even result in better deals and smoother service from long-term vendors and resellers – if you let them in on the plan.  

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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