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.