As the Linux operating system continues its ease-of-use evolution, it becomes a much more viable option for small business owners. Here's why it may be time to ditch Windows.
Selling businesses on the benefits of Linux has been a tough proposition for many years. Common reasons cited for not moving to the open-source operating system include system complexity, lack of in-house IT skills and a shortage of business applications. Both the open-source software community and the vendor world have done a lot to address these shortcomings, and the inroads gained are plain for all to see.
Linux servers posted their second consecutive quarter of solid growth with year-over-year revenue growth of 8.4 percent for a total of $1.8 billion in the quarter, said Matt Eastwood, an analyst at International data Corp. (IDC). Linux-based servers now represent 13.7 percent of all server revenue.
That percentage clearly demonstrates that Linux has made it out of the fringes. Not surprisingly, small businesses usage is also on the upsurge. Take the Whitelaw Twining Law Corp, for example. This 25-person law firm migrated from Windows 98 and Windows 2000 to SUSE Linux by Novell Inc.
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 up-front training with our employees and have had almost no help desk calls since."
Maybe its time, then, to take another look at Linux on the desktop and/or the server side. We'll look at the seven areas you need to consider.
Compared to only a few years ago, the hardware and component support for Linux is much more encouraging. You'll fine far more processors, drivers, graphic cards and peripherals that support Linux than ever before.
Companies have a vast range of devices and machines at every price and performance level, said Gerry Carr, marketing manager at Canonical Ltd., the company that supports a desktop Linux version called Ubuntu. In most cases, therefore, hardware compatibility is not going to be an issue for any small business considering the Linux leap.
To combat the idea that it's hard-to-learn, Linux now offers a lot of user-friendly server packages. These systems are set up to make it relatively easy for small businesses to install and run Linux themselves. Examples include server software by Red Hat Inc., SUSE Linux by Novell and Ubuntu Server Edition by Canonical.
While these products are less complex than before, that doesnt necessarily mean an inexperienced business owner can download them and be off and running. Skills can be an issue, particularly on a Linux server, said Carr. You might well have hired a Microsoft-trained IT staff and they will need to be re-trained for Linux or you may need new staff with Linux training.
If the idea of importing new Linux talent scares you away from the proposition, another option is to use the support arms that have evolved within the Linux community. Red Hat and SUSE, for example, offer server software starting at $349 per year with basic support rolled in. More comprehensive support costs upward of $1,000 in some cases. Ubuntu is offered free by download, and support costs $750 per server per year
Linux is a great solution for small business customers because it helps them avoid high licensing costs, viruses, vendor lock-in, hardware upgrades and unstable servers and desktops, said Adam Viele, a technology specialist at CDW Corp. Small businesses that choose an enterprise-class version of Linux will get a comprehensive IT solution along with the reliability of enterprise-class support a smaller business may not be able to afford otherwise.
Plenty of progress has also been made on the desktop side of the ledger. Both Novell and Ubuntu serve as good examples. Once again, Ubuntu is available for free download ($250 for support per year). SUSE Linux for the desktop costs $50 per desktop (support not included). There are deals available for bulk purchases.
But it isnt just the Linux vendors that are jumping on the bandwagon. PC makers are starting to support Linux much more broadly. Companies such as Dell, HP and Lenovo are pre-loading desktop Linux on certain computer models.
[PC makers] are certifying many Linux distributions, from Novell to Red Hat and Ubuntu, on a growing list of servers, notebooks and desktops, said Grant Ho, senior product manager for Linux and open platform solutions at Novell. At the end of the day, this is ultimately allowing organizations to access Linux much more easily and to enjoy its benefits out of the box.
Whoever thought wed live to see the day when Microsoft would actually embrace open source. Yet Microsoft has an active partnership with Novell SUSE Linux to create compatible products such as Office document formats and management platforms that are compatible both Linux and Windows.
Beyond that, Linux applications are multiplying rapidly and are available now in most areas of the business world. You can replace Microsoft Office with OpenOffice.org, use Firefox for Web browsing, Evolution for e-mail, Pidgin for instant messaging and Banshee for music management, just to name a few.
The software that businesses need to run is available for Linux now, and many of them are free, said Carr. We will also see applications like IBM Lotus Notes and Domino Server available for Ubuntu by the year's end that is a direct Outlook replacement, which is the one piece of software that keeps many businesses in the Microsoft world.
Not everything is covered, though. There may be some proprietary products you need to have which just dont have a Linux equivalent. The finance department, for example, might have an application it would be difficult to replace. But even here, the solution for those wanting to move to Linux would be to retain a few licenses for the folks in finance, and change the rest of the gear to Linux.
For Windows application that have no Linux alternatives, you can make use of Wine, an open-source Linux platform that allows you to run Windows applications such as Microsoft Office, multi-media applications, including QuickTime and Windows Media Player, and even games such as Max Payne and The SIMS on top of Linux. Desktop virtualization can also be used in some cases to run Windows applications on Linux.
The oft-cited motivation for switching to Linux is economics. According to Carr, OpenOffice is more than good enough that people should question having to pay licenses for Microsoft Office the same for Windows Vista.
"While cost is part of it, your staff should in no way feel they are getting inferior systems to use, said Carr. They are often faster, easier to use, more reliable, without spyware, malware and viruses, more Internet-friendly and better presented.
Whitelaw Twinning, for instance, evaluated a move to Vista, as well as to various Linux distributions. It selected SUSE Linux for desktop. "We evaluated solutions based on the ability to create a safe environment, as well as what it would cost us in time and money to maintain them, said Giroux.
He estimated the change reduced hardware costs by 30 percent and desktop maintenance time by 20 percent.
What SMBs shouldnt do, though, is take the big bang route to Linux. Start out with a desktop or two, or a couple of servers and get a feel for the system. Armed with initial successes, it provides the motivation to roll it out further into the business.
And according to analysts, more and more small businesses are heading in the direction of Linux.
The reputation that Linux is too technical for both administrators and end-users is rapidly fading, said Ho. From our experience, we see SMBs moving to both server and desktop Linux in a wide variety of industries retail, financial services, public sector, non-profit all around the world.
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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