Many small businesses have avoided Linux for a variety of reasons: not enough applications, complexity of installation or that it requires too much technical know-how to run. The technology has matured over many years, which raises the question: how valid are these considerations today?
"At this point, this is more of a perception issue than a real business issue," says Chip Nickolett, a systems integrator with Comprehensive Consulting Solutions, Inc., of Brookfield, Wisc., a company that has installed Linux in businesses of all sizes. "While Linux has become more accepted in the business environment, many still view it as geekware. Those companies look at Microsoft the way companies used to look at IBM as the safe choice."
He points out that Linux has improved in many areas over the past few years. First and foremost, he says, in performance and reliability. "It usually just works, something a small business appreciates," says Nickolett. "Software installation and patch management have improved dramatically and graphical desktop tools are continually evolving."
He also notes that a wide range of products and applications are now supported on Linux. Almost any small-to-medium-size business, he believes, could find what they need on Linux.
As an example, he discusses a small specialty manufacturing shop in the Midwest that had to upgrade its database. It used the opportunity to move to a Red Hat Linux platform. This required only minor application changes, and the in-house IT person who was not previously trained on Linux could easily look after the environment.
"When you factor in the cost of hardware and the cost of support, Red Hat was more attractive from a cost-benefit perspective," says Nickolett. "Given this company's limited budget, open source was very appealing especially over the course of several years."
While Red Hat has been the best-known Linux flavor among SMBs, it now has some serious competition in the form of Novell Inc. Novell introduced SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 this year, which is a desktop to data center Linux platform, i.e., it includes common server and desktop elements small businesses can use to reduce the administrative burden.
Further, the company offers Pattern Deployments such as e-mail server, file server and Web server which let you select the kind of server you want. Installation is then automatically configured to provide the most efficient and streamlined version of the type of server chosen.
"What it means for the end user is fewer lines of operating system code on every server, which means a smaller footprint, improved performance and fewer things that can go wrong," says Justin Steinman, director of Linux & open platform solutions at Novell.
Stonebridge Bank, a small community bank in West Chester, Penn., for instance, uses Novell. To trim operating costs, it decided to offload its Windows systems and move to SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.
"We moved to Linux because we liked the idea of an open enterprise," said George Rapp, senior vice president of information systems at Stonebridge. "Novell gives us the best technology, pricing and support options for Linux."
Novell Linux, says Rapp, has cut the total cost of ownership for each server from $230 to $31 per server per month. In addition, it has reduced the bank's administration time and eliminated the need to hire additional staff. One person now manages the bank's Linux environment.
"It's been easy for staff familiar with Windows and NetWare to pick up Linux," said Rapp. "Linux gives us a common skill set and simplifies administration."
As well as Linux software vendors, there are a growing number of hardware companies specializing in Linux. Penguin Computing Inc. of San Francisco, for example, offers a range of Linux servers based on Intel or AMD Opteron processors. They come with the software already installed, and they also provide compatible peripheral and storage options too.
Between Novell, Red Hat, Penguin and others, Linux has been made more accessible to small business. Further, the vendor community is more behind Linux than ever. Companies such as IBM, CA, HP, Dell and even Sun have rolled out a succession of Linux products. Many of these are aimed at the low end basic servers and applications that small businesses can use. As a result, support is more readily available for Linux than ever before. Thus the operating system is finding its way into many more small businesses.
"With the right support, Linux and other open source solutions can give you excellent value for the price," says Antonopoulos. "However, there is a lack of widely available skilled Linux administrators compared to Windows."
To get around this issue, Nickolett suggests that small businesses focus on better-known brands of Linux in order to make life easier. "There is Linux expertise available locally in most areas, so one key to finding good support is to use well known products," he says. "Red Hat Linux is one of the more popular platforms, so it will be easier to find knowledgeable and reliable support."
Philip Pokorny, director of field engineering at Penguin Computing, however, suggests that any small business thinking of deploying Linux should secure an IT administrator who is comfortable with either UNIX or Linux. He feels that if the system administrator has only ever used Windows, that business is not a good candidate for an immediate migration to Linux.
"Organizations that are not currently good candidates should get started by investing in training for their IT personnel on Linux," says Pokorny. "Both Novell and Red Hat offer excellent training courses to help bring administrators up to speed."
Despite the positive pronouncements above, some of the analysts remain wary about recommending Linux to any and all small businesses. "Linux should be considered by small businesses for hosted or managed services, but not for self-management," says Antonopoulos. "It requires skills, just like Windows, but the skills may not be as widely available."
Nickolett, on the other hand, feels that some smaller outfits could manage Linux with minimal outside help. But he stops short of telling small Windows shops to move to the open source platform.
"For a very small business where everything else was Windows, I would recommend staying with Windows," says Nickolett. "Having a single platform makes things easier to manage.
Novell's Steinman suggests that certain workloads work best on Novell and others are best on Linux. The company has even entered into a partnership with Microsoft to improve interoperability between Linux and Windows. The idea is that businesses can run both platforms side-by-side rather than having to make an either-or choice.
"It's okay to install Windows for certain workloads and install Linux for others," says Steinman. Haff, however, remains unconvinced that Microsoft's domination of the SMB is under threat at least in the short term.
"For the most part, Microsoft owns small business," he says. "It's a familiar environment, for all its warts, and small businesses that lack IT skills will tend to choose Windows."
What about all the improvements that have been made? While he agrees that progress has been made, he doesn't see that this will move the masses to Linux. "Linux installs have gotten easier and device support more comprehensive," says Haff. "But it's still too unfamiliar for most small businesses to feel comfortable using."
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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