Open-Source Options for Small Business

By Drew Robb | Posted April 16, 2009

While open source software has been around for years, it often required specialized IT skills and a lot of babysitting. That, combined with a general lack of applications, was enough to keep most small businesses at bay. But thanks to the ongoing financial malaise, which appears to be acting as a catalyst toward adopting open source products, those days could well be over

“Our current economic crisis is the change agent that will drive open source to the next level of widespread adoption,” said Chip Nickolett, director of consulting services at Ingres Corp.

The good news is that now there are plenty of options for SMBs to ease themselves into the world of open source.

Desktop and Server

Perhaps the easiest place to begin with open source is at the desktop. Simply add a few Linux desktops and get a feel for how it works. Most organizations can do this without consuming too much time learning or administering it.

Unfortunately, the land of Linux can get pretty complex when you try to define all the possible choices. There are so many variants and offshoots that we decided to focus on only a handful of the more popular options.

SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop by Novell has a growing presence among SMBs. You can choose from a variety of subscriptions including: $50 per year per user with minimal support; $120 for a year with better support; and $220 per year for top-notch support. According to Grant Ho, a Novell product marketing manager, the software takes less than 30 minutes to install. Whitelaw Twining, a Canada-based law firm, replaced outdated Windows 98 and 2000 desktops with SUSE. This move saved the company 30 percent in hardware costs and reduced desktop maintenance time by 20 percent.

“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 training with our users up front and have had almost no help-desk calls since.”

Other Linux desktop options include

  • Ubuntu for desktops won’t cost you a penny, and you’ll find support documentation on the Web site. You can buy fee-based phone support from third parties such as Canonical Ltd.

Ubuntu, Red Hat, Novell and others also offer plenty of options on the server side. Again, Ubuntu is free while Red Hat and Novell offer subscription-based pricing. Sun Microsystems also gives away the OpenSolaris operating systems.

Applications

The lack of applications used to be a major bone of contention for Linux. That barrier has largely vanished.

“Having an open environment with Linux gives us the opportunity to select from thousands of high-quality open source programs,” said Giroux. “One application for transcription playback has already saved us thousands of dollars.”

Here are a few examples. The Ingres database has a proven track record and was owned by software giant Computer Associates until a few years ago.  As a database alternative, there is MySQL. Firefox has become widely established as a rival browser to Internet Explorer. Mozilla also provides a popular e-mail platform. Visit www.SourceForge.net and you can find all sorts of open-source applications and projects.

But it is probably office productivity applications based on open source that have the most appeal for small businesses. OpenOffice is another good way to get one’s open-source feet wet.  This viable, free alternative to Microsoft Office works well and includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software and more. It doesn’t even require Linux to operate. Download it onto a Windows PC and try it out.

Sun offers an enhanced version of OpenOffice known as StarOffice that, for $35, you can download onto Windows, Mac, Solaris or Linux. Novell’s OpenOffice.org Novell Edition for Windows comes complete with Firefox, Novell Evolution e-mail and calendaring, Pidgin instant messaging, word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and database capabilities. Pricing works out at around $120 per desktop per year including support. 

Also worth a look is the free IBM Lotus Symphony, which includes applications similar to OpenOffice. 

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