Leaning Toward Linux: What SMBs Need To Know

Running a Linux open-source operating system can potentially offer substantial savings over running Windows. Small business owners looking to cut costs may be tempted to take a closer look at Linux. And while the OS has a lot to offer, incorporating it into your company’s IT infrastructure isn’t for the uninitiated — you need to be educated and prepared for what lies ahead.

We spoke to several experts who provide tips and resources to help you learn about Linux and its capabilities without tying up your time or potentially endangering vital business systems.

Learning Linux: Read All About It

Linux has a reputation for being complex, and while that isn’t necessarily true, it can seem so at first if you don’t make the effort to discover a few of the basics. If you’re unfamiliar with this open-source operating system, your first step should be to read up on the subject in advance.

“Linux is actually much easier to use than is commonly assumed,” said Nick Carr, marketing director of Red Hat Inc. “Still, it will doubtless feel strange to a Windows user at first.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to learn how Linux works, how to set it up, discover the important tips and tricks, and countless other helpful facts. Reading an introduction book on Linux is the best way to start. “There are numerous books available that can help someone learn Linux,” said Chip Nickolett, senior director of consulting and systems engineering at Ingres Corp. “Books published by O’Reilly are generally good.”Joining a Linux community is another smart step. Most online groups are receptive to new users. If you have questions, the community is usually very willing to help answer them. You’ll also find plenty of Linux 101 educational classes or online tutorials. According to Chip Nickolett, the following sites offer, or link to, free basic Linux training:

Alternatively, type “Free Linux Training” into Yahoo or Google for further options, find a local Linux User Group or hire someone with lots of Linux experience. “If you’re near a college with a computer science program, odds are you can find a student to provide some assistance and support at low cost,” said Joe Brockmeier, openSUSE community manager at Novell Inc.  

Testing Linux Without Trauma

Once you understand what to expect and how to complete basic tasks, it’s time to get your hands dirty. A good way to start is to grab an old, idle server and download free Linux software from Linux.org, which offers plenty of advice and free operating systems. Otherwise, a search for “Free Linux Software” will provide plenty of hits.

The software includes a range of server applications and won’t cost you a cent, said Nick Carr, which means you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by trying it. After an initial toe-in-the-water success, Carr said that people go on to much more adventurous experiments.

If you’re looking for an even easier approach, start with an old PC. This provides a risk-free way to understand what Linux is all about. “Start small and simple,” said Carr.

Most Linux advocates caution against trying too much too soon on existing production systems. They also don’t think it’s a good idea to replace working systems with Linux just for the sake of it.

“You don’t want to disrupt your business or make other users unhappy, so don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Brockmeier. “Start with deployments that will help the business and add functionality that didn’t exist before a deployment Linux.”

Many small businesses gain their first Linux experienced with a simple server, a small Web server, a network server or a file/print server. An intranet server is also a safe bet. An intranet is basically a network used internally in an organization to facilitate communication and accessibility to corporate information.

Unlike the Internet, this is an internal Web site that only people of that specific firm can access. This approach eliminates most of the business risk while helping you and your employees gain familiarity with the nuances of Linux. 

“Begin with some kind of simple server, or perhaps a hosted service that provides exposure to Linux without making the administrator responsible for the entire system,” said Brockmeier. “This gives you hands-on experience with Linux without using it to run a mission-critical part of the business.”

Linux Roll Out

Because Linux is different than Windows, it may initially require more time to set up, as well as enough patience to understand its full potential. If you run a small business and have no Linux experience, you have to weigh the pros and cons. What will it cost to learn Linux or to hire the necessary talent versus how much you can save in licensing costs?

“Linux is more complex in set up and configuration,” said Sabine Waterkamp, president of ACSLA Inc. “It is cheaper in terms of license fees, but you have to factor in that it may require more time and more skilled resources.”

With a Linux professional already on hand or someone willing to learn how it works and how to set it up, Linux could pay healthy dividends. For organizations that already lack IT resources and don’t have in-house Linux know-how, however, it may be easier to stick with Windows.

“In some cases, you might be paying $800 to license a Windows server that is easy for your staff to run compared to a free Linux server license and having to pay $60 an hour to bring in someone who knows Linux,” said Waterkamp.

You need to take a thorough look at the costs before jumping in with both feet. Look at all sides of the pricing equation because Windows may have hidden costs you haven’t previously considered.

Last but not least, find out if there are Linux consultants in your area that you can tap for support emergencies that your in-house staff can’t handle. This will help pave the way to a successful Linux roll out.  

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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