Doing Business With Open Source

By Aaron Weiss | Posted May 22, 2007

For more than a decade, open source software has been mostly the province of programmers. Although the underpinnings of the Internet itself are powered mostly by open source software, it’s been said that most open source projects begin when a coder “scratches an itch.” That is, most open source projects are begun to satisfy personal interests rather than to meet commercial goals.

But the popularity of the open source model – sharing the software code with limited restrictions on further modification and use, often without charge – has more recently caught the interest of commercial ventures. Increasingly, software vendors are developing products ranging from messaging servers to CRM platforms and releasing at least entry-level feature sets as free, open source code.

For the small business, this means expanding choices in free, commercial-grade software. Although the basic software is free and may be all you ever need, prepare to pay up for support, hosting, premium features or the development cost of customizing the source code to your own unique needs.

In this roundup, we look at several software categories of interest to small businesses and the most mature open source offerings available. Rather than think of commercial open source products as “free,” it may be more useful to consider them as subsidized – developed in cooperation with motivated volunteers working in complement with paid support-and-development staff. Consequently, even paid editions of software may offer good value compared to traditional closed source products.

Messaging and Groupware
For years the enterprise messaging space has been dominated by Microsoft Exchange and, to a lesser degree, Lotus Notes. A variety of open source e-mail servers are available – some widely used, like Sendmail and Postfix – but most lack the extended collaborative functions like calendaring, tasks and scheduling that have fueled the adoption of Microsoft Exchange server with the Microsoft Outlook client.

Enter a trio of open source contenders, designed deliberately to offer an alternative to the Exchange hegemony.

Available for most versions of Linux and for Mac OS X, Zimbra Collaboration Suite is a full-featured messaging system with support for e-mail, contacts, calendars, and it integrates with a variety of third-party clients. Besides Zimbra’s own Web-based, Ajax-powered messaging client, Zimbra can interoperate with Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCal and even mobile clients such as Blackberry.

But take note, Zimbra’s free open source edition supports its wide range of messaging features only to people who use its included Web-based client. For a business without an existing reliance on Outlook or other third-party groupware clients, Zimbra’s free open source edition can provide a full end-to-end solution. To use Zimbra with Outlook or iCal you must upgrade to the “Professional Edition,” with pricing starting at $875/year for 25 people.

Like Zimbra, Scalix, which works with most Linux platforms, is a messaging platform aimed at replacing Exchange. And also like Zimbra, Scalix offers a full-featured collaboration server that aspires to replace Microsoft Exchange, offering e-mail and shared calendaring through both the included Web client, third-party applications like Outlook and mobile clients.

Scalix is available in three editions, starting with the free, open source Community Edition, which supports up to 25 Outlook customers. But small business customers might want to look at Scalix’s Small Business Edition,” ($995) which supports up to 50 Outlook customers and includes support for Active Directory and wireless clients.

For the more DIY-oriented small business, the OpenGroupware suite is another open source effort to replace Microsoft Exchange. Unlike Zimbra and Scalix, OpenGroupware is a more classical open source project in that it takes more care and feeding to setup and administer.

That is, unless you opt for the pay version called Instant OGo distributed by German software vendor Skyrix. For approximately $1,150 for Instant OGo with a 12-month maintenance contract and support for 20 Outlook customers, this CD-based version of OpenGroupware launches directly from disc and includes a fully configured operating system and a plug-and-play messaging server.

Customer Relations Management (CRM)
The Web-based Salesforce.com CRM platform has been a big hit since debuting as an alternative to self-hosted and proprietary CRM solutions. But in churning up the CRM space, several commercial open source competitors have emerged that offer flavors of both the hosted and self-hosted varieties.

Built on the Sugar Open Source platform, SugarCRM provides a full-featured application that includes marketing, sales, support, collaboration and reporting. The free open source product runs on Linux, Windows, BSD, Mac OS X and most Unix-like operating systems. It includes standard features such as lead tracking, contact management, tasks, shared calendar, project and case management, bug tracking and support for SQL Server. For more capabilities, the Professional Edition, which costs $275 per person per year, adds support for sales forecasting, contract, team and workflow management and Microsoft Outlook clients.

While the free version of SugarCRM must be installed on your company's server, you can opt for a hosted version of the Professional Edition for $40 per person per month.

While most open source projects originate in Linux environments, SplendidCRM is the one exception to the trend. This commercial open source CRM platform is built on Microsoft programming languages.

Although its feature set is a subset of SugarCRM, because SplendidCRM is written for Windows rather than Linux or Unix, its open source version is uniquely suited to customization by Windows developers who might otherwise be less familiar with the coding technologies used in most open source products.

Procurement
Like CRM software, electronic procurement solutions address the kinds of business-oriented needs that, traditionally, have been neglected by enthusiast-driven open source projects. At least, until Coupa eProcurement Express, licensed under the Free Software Foundation GPL, and available for Linux, Windows and Mac OS X.

At its heart, Coupa is designed around a seemingly intuitive metaphor that positions procurement as a typical online shopping experience, making it easy to manage requisitions, policies and approvals. In doing so, it aims to lower the barriers to compliance that can stand in the way of a business’ purchasing policies and employee follow-through.

The free open source Express edition offers most of the requisitioning features of its Enterprise sibling (see comparison chart here). Pricing for the Enterprise edition is yet to be finalized. The Enterprise edition adds higher-end procurement functions such as electronic invoicing, RFQs, and purchasing reports.

Office Productivity
It’s been said that, besides the Windows operating system itself, Microsoft Office is the Redwood software giant’s most profitable product. But as Office has mushroomed in cost, size and feature set – one estimate famously suggested that 80 percent of Office customers use only 20 percent of its features – the stage has been set for an open source alternative to office productivity.

OpenOffice has become a cause celebre in the open source community for its rapid maturation into a full-featured productivity suite. Available for all major operating systems, OpenOffice includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation authoring, illustrator, database and an equation editor. Wherever possible, OpenOffice maintains compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats.

And with OpenOffice, unlike commercial open source projects, the free version is the full version.

Some of the same complaints aimed at Microsoft Office have also been lobbed at OpenOffice, particularly feature bloat and resource use. If you need only word processing capabilities and are running an older, low-memory workstation, open source, you might consider AbiWord, a leaner, meaner Microsoft Word replacement.

Like OpenOffice, AbiWord can read and write a variety of third-party formats including Microsoft Word and is available for all major operating systems. Unlike OpenOffice, AbiWord is only a few megabytes and runs well on older machines and runs easily on a USB thumb drive.

Accounting
In the commercial space, small businesses usually turn to Intuit Quickbooks or Microsoft Money for their accounting needs. Only a couple of open source alternatives have evolved to maturity.

GnuCash is a graphical accounting application that runs on Linux, BSD, Mac OS X, and Solaris operating systems. While there is a GnuCash port for Windows, it's said to have problems with certain versions of the Windows operating system.

GnuCash is designed for double-entry bookkeeping, with an interface that some people consider “unfriendly.” While GnuCash is free, whether or not it's worth it price depends largely on one’s comfort with double entry accounting.

One of the rare open source Windows-only applications, TurboCASH is billed as “accounting made easy.” TurboCASH includes a variety of setup wizards, supports multiple companies and extensive accounting reports, and it lets you design your invoices. It.

Designed in South Africa, TurboCASH is international accounting software, with support for VAT and sales tax practices in other countries. The free open source edition is the full-featured edition; although you can buy a CD-ROM for about $100, which includes pre-packaged extras such as plug-ins, training and documentation. Spending $195 buys the CD and tech support.

Dell Desktop Linux
It is no coincidence that Linux developers create most open source projects – Linux itself is a granddaddy of open source development. While Linux has long been popular on the server and among programmers, Linux as a desktop operating system for everyday use has taken longer to mature.

One obstacle to desktop Linux is the dominance of Windows, expressed in part by Microsoft’s strong relationships with most PC vendors. Try to buy a new PC from a major vendor without Windows pre-installed. You can’t.

That is, until now. Dell has become the first major vendor to start shipping desktop PCs with Linux pre-installed instead of Windows. Dell has chosen the distribution known as Ubuntu Linux, designed intentionally to provide a user-friendly experience nearly on par with Windows and Mac OS X for ease of use.

Available on select Dells e-series desktop, Inspiron laptop and XPS desktop systems ranging in price from $400 to $1,100, these desktop Linux machines free computer owners from the growing costs of Windows – from upgrade pricing to viruses and spyware.

Because most open source projects are developed natively in Linux, PCs running desktop Linux are in the best position to take advantage of the growing commercial-grade open source movement.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is: bordella.com

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