Ten Things Small Businesses Need To Know About Linux

By Drew Robb | Posted February 24, 2004

Not so long ago, Linux was only for the technically adept. Then large enterprises claimed it as their own — only they possessed internal resources aplenty to confront its complexity. These days, however, more and more small- and mid-sized businesses are moving to the fastest-growing Operating System (OS) for good, solid reasons — and they aren't looking back. Recent developments in crossover programming are also making Linux on the desktop a working reality for some small businesses.

Before you leave the comfortable empire Mr. Gates built and attempt to implement Linux, either as a server or on the desktop, there are several important points to consider. This article will conduct you on a brief tour of 10 important points to ponder before you wrap your arms around Linux.

What's the number one reason to switch to Linux? Well ... it's free. Zero cost if you can spend time researching and experimenting with the many available free software downloads from the people at the Fedora Project and Linux Online.

Or, you can buy a complete, packaged, easy-to-install OS for under $100 from any of several name-brand vendors. Visit Linux Central to browse through the different options. The prices are startlingly inexpensive when compared to buying Windows XP and paying for additional annual subscriptions.

Linux may help you cut hardware costs. According to various independent tests, the Linux OS and its associated applications are smaller and faster than Windows, allowing the CPU to get more done. This principle applies especially to desktops and small business servers. Linux may well breathe new life into aging servers, or allow you to spend a little less on new servers.

Linux descended from UNIX, which is probably the most reliable OS in business today. As a result, Windows drawbacks such as the "Blue Screen of Death" become a thing of the past for Linux users. Linux servers don't need to be rebooted once a day to clear out the forgotten trash, and they rarely crash. It may take time to set up a Linux server at first, but it will keep on going, and going ... and going.

Servers are the best way to start learning open source software. Perhaps it would be wise to utilize your next server expansion project as a training session on Linux as well as a pilot project. Start with a Web server, file server or print server. After mastering the nuances of deploying your first box, additional servers simply become a matter of cloning the software onto the new machine and configuring any new applications.

Several vendors sell system configuration and network utilities that simplify the tasks involved with adding a new server and managing the entire system. These tools allow one system administrator to manage and maintain far more servers than is possible with Microsoft. You can find Linux-based system configuration and network utilities at Novell Nterprise Services, Ximian Red Carpet Enterprise and BMC Software PATROL (for high-end IBM zSeries servers, high end), among others.

If there are no new servers looming in the near future, the absolute cheapest way to check out Linux is to grab a spare Windows PC and set up the new OS on a separate disk partition. You can use free utilities that carve out the new partition from the free space on the Windows disk. Get more information about these types of utilities from parted, which is included with Red Hat Fedora; fips, which is included with Debian, or the fips utility alone.

Through partitioning, the PC stays fully usable on the Windows side, and you now have a working Linux box to play with, too. The process is not hard for someone with Windows and DOS installation experience, but it is much more complex than just installing Windows.

If the project is just you and an old PC, there is not much risk involved. But if you are thinking of changing over your company from Microsoft to Linux, you better plan it out well before you alter anything. "The two main reasons migration projects fail are lack of understanding of the goals and a lack of planning," said Chip Nickolett, President of Comprehensive Consulting Solutions, and a veteran of many Linux migrations. Decide what you want to achieve in your business, and lay out the pathway to arrive there. If Linux can help you meet your business goals in a cost-effective manner, then so be it.

When you make your plan, be very, very defensive. A friend of mine set up Linux and the free OpenOffice program on his workstation. OpenOffice is an open software attempt to match the functionality of Microsoft Office. As he did not do a custom install, OpenOffice appeared to grab all his Word files and convert them to the OpenOffice file format. Instead of the Word icon, every doc displayed the OO icon. He was only trying out OpenOffice to see how it is, and has decided to stay on MS office for now, but this caused him some concern. Fortunately, the "conversion" turned out to be only a cosmetic one. As soon as OpenOffice was deleted, the Word icon's returned The lesson here is to always isolate your experiments from your real production systems. Take small, cautious steps forward. And like the expert always say — back up everything often.

There are problems with Linux-based office applications that somehow rarely seem to be mentioned on vendor sites. Not surprisingly, none of these applications are 100 percent file-compatible with Microsoft Office. Small business lives in a big business world, and your company must take in Microsoft files and send out Microsoft files. The best Linux office suite today is StarOffice 7 from Sun Microsystems. Priced at $65, even this full-feature business productivity suite does not import Microsoft Word files with full formatting, macros and revisions. StarOffice does grudgingly export documents in Word format, but once again the files lose some formatting. But in all fairness, not even Microsoft Word can always read its own files perfectly, and the problems with Word formatting in StarOffice and even OpenOffice are relatively minor.

Perhaps more importantly, StarOffice has a primitive version of PowerPoint. No flashy presentations here. Out in the marketplace, these dull slides would have to compete against the full dazzle of PowerPoint. StarOffice is in fact a first-rate office suite, and for the low price you get a fine office setup that meets normal small business needs. Unfortunately, at this time it doesn't compare well with Microsoft PowerPoint. But don't give up on Linux yet.

Luckily, there is a way around the incompatibility and feature loss. CrossOver Office from CodeWeavers allows you to run the real Microsoft Office programs under Linux and does the job well for only $70. Using this approach gets you out from under Windows subscription fees, and you can still enjoy all your Microsoft Office features. It isn't perfect, but power users will complain a lot less when compared to using StarOffice. Crossover Office fully supports the 2000 versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Crossover Office supports other Microsoft programs, but not quite as well. These include the 2000 versions of Outlook, Access, and Quicken, as well as Internet Explorer 5.0 through 6.0, Photoshop 7.0 and Lotus Notes R5. For XP users, Crossover Office supports Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Many other Windows programs work well too. So the Crossover Office approach may be good for your business operation, but run tests for you first and then let the power users wring it out.

In Conclusion
Linux can provide a small business with a cost-effective, stable OS for running Windows applications. And Linux-based business productivity suites for the desktop can be had for a song. While these are key motivations for embracing Linux, make sure you do your homework first.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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