The Open Source Option

By Steve Apiki | Posted November 29, 2005

Oh, that it were all as simple as downloading some free software. Open-source software is a maturing, ever-more viable option for small business, but reducing cost through its use requires a careful approach — and a careful evaluation of your business's software needs. In all likelihood, open-source software can meet some — but not all — of those requirements. Finding the line that separates those categories, and deploying open source software only where appropriate, is the key to a successful strategy.

Open-source covers a lot of territory, but today there are two ways to best apply this class of software in a small business. The first is to move from your standard desktop office suite (most likely, Microsoft Office) to OpenOffice.org, continuing to run the Windows operating system (OS) on the desktop. OpenOffice is the most compelling open-source desktop software and may well be a good fit for small business. The second is the more dramatic conversion from the Windows OS to Linux, which may be what comes most readily to mind when picturing the move to open source.

OpenOffice
Recently released OpenOffice.org 2.0 has been garnering its share of attention for its better compatibility with Microsoft Office, simpler user interface, support for Open Document Format (ODF) and for a new database module.

Because OpenOffice runs on Windows and OS X as well as on Unix-based operating systems such as Linux, moving to OpenOffice represents less of a commitment than converting machines from one operating system to another.

While compatibility with Microsoft Office is good, and clearly getting better, it is not complete. OpenOffice.org is not a drop-in replacement for Office. For tasks that fall outside of this growing zone of compatibility, there may be costs associated with learning new techniques, or in converting data formats to those expected by suppliers and customers. Small businesses need to verify that these costs, including support and training, don't outweigh the cost of an Office license.

Tim Ocock is founder of Symsource Ltd., a London-based startup specializing in mobile phone software. Symsource needs to run Windows, because that's the only platform that hosts the software tools required by its developers. Ocock turned to OpenOffice.org as a cost-saving measure. "When starting a new business, it's imperative to keep the costs as low as possible, and commercial office applications are very expensive," says Ocock. "OpenOffice gave us an opportunity to reduce our costs in that area."

Symsource uses OpenOffice primarily for word processing and spreadsheets, less so for presentations. "Typical documents we create would include software designs heavy with diagrams and commercial proposals to our customers," says Ocock.

Although the company is currently tied to Windows, Ocock likes to run open-source tools where it makes sense. He says, "Open source running on top of Windows is good for us wherever there is an equivalent or better product available for free. We have also adopted Firefox and Thunderbird as our standard platform for Internet activities." Symsource also uses a number of server-based open-source tools to run its company intranet, including the Apache Web server, PHP, and MediaWiki, according to Ocock.

Linux Considered
Should you decide to make the move to Linux desktops, OpenOffice.org will probably remain in your toolbox. In addition, there are a number of other open-source productivity packages that may fill a role in your organization. These include:

  • Koffice — a full office suite for KDE, a popular desktop environment on Linux
  • AbiWord — An open-source word processor
  • Gnumeric — An open-source spreadsheet
  • Scribus — Open-source desktop publishing
  • Dia — Open-source diagramming and flowcharting

Although the most common productivity tools are available on Linux, there are clearly additional hurdles to adopting Linux on the desktop. For one, people familiar with the Windows desktop will face a learning curve when faced with KDE or Gnome desktop environments. The slope of that curve will vary both with the kinds of tasks those people perform and their experience with environments outside of Windows.

For Tony Iams, senior analyst at Ideas International in Rye Brook, New York, it's all about the industry-specific applications: the law-office packages or mail-order packages on which many SMBs rely. "The real issue is application availability," says Iams. In his view, OpenOffice is a building block, a foundation for these vertical applications. Other building blocks, which have yet to materialize, include an open-source equivalent to Microsoft Access and one for Intuit's QuickBooks.

"You then need to get people who will use those building blocks to create actual solutions for specific SMB needs and drive them out to the market," says Iams. "That's the process that really hasn't begun in earnest yet."

One industry development that may help to broaden the base of these applications on Linux is Novell's recent focus on moving Linux to SMBs. The company introduced its Linux Small Business Suite 9 earlier this year. The server-based suite is worthy of consideration if you are moving to a server-centric configuration and are considering Linux. But it is Novell's interest itself that can make more applications available on Linux, a benefit to all SMBs. "Novell has the channel relationships with the resellers, the ones who are really going to put together the solutions," says Iams.

Server First
Linux lags behind Windows on the desktop, at least for the majority of businesses, both because of staff comfort with Windows and because of a lack of vertical applications. But on the server side there are fewer caveats. Linux has proven itself as a robust server operating system in the enterprise, and it can make an excellent server for SMBs as well — provided there's sufficient experience to keep administrative costs in line.

"If you don't have any Linux skill sets, it's probably risky to try to bring Linux into your organization," says Iams. In this case, the reduced licensing costs would not be worth the support costs of trying to keep an unfamiliar server running.

For companies with Linux expertise, there is of course little limitation to the open-source services you can host on a Linux system. These include the Apache Web server, MySQL and PostgreSQL databases and file services that can host files for Windows or other clients.

When considering the big picture, a server-first orientation may be even more important than the choice between open-source and closed-source, according to Iams.

"Open source does not, in itself, deal with many of the costs that small business cares about," he says. "It's really the discipline of keeping as much as possible on the server."

Centralizing services leads to more efficient use of resources, easier administration and greater opportunity for automation. It also makes it easier to make changes down the road, such as swapping out the back end from one based on a Windows Server OS to one based on Linux.

So while the free Linux download is appealing, converting a peer network of Windows desktops to a roughly equivalent group of Linux machines is probably not the best strategic approach. Says Iams, "The smart thing to do is not to focus right away on the acquisition costs of Linux versus Windows, but instead on adopting practices and procedures that can help lower your ongoing operational costs."

Steve Apiki is a freelance writer and software developer who works for a small business in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He's been a contributing editor to BYTE and to FamilyPC.

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