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Get ready for the penguin

It seems open source is all the rage. But just because the operating system is becoming more popular does not mean it lacks controversy.

With IBM putting its Linux campaign in full swing, and grassroots organizations putting on “Freedom Software Day,” it seems open source is all the rage. But just because the operating system is becoming more popular doesn’t mean it lacks controversy. Open-source detractors say that Linux and its ilk don’t interoperate well, that there’s clumsiness with custom applications, and that care and feeding of the system skews real TCO. Advocates counter that Linux breaks the Microsoft monopoly, freeing companies and individuals with a system that’s cheaper, safer and more stable.

In some ways, both sides are right. Despite a rabid Microsoft initiative to shoot down belief that Linux is a cheaper alternative to Windows, many reports still show open source as an affordable option to both Windows and Unix. But implementing the system could be tricky for companies that are reliant on Microsoft for every aspect of their businesses, and have homegrown applications built on the system.

What this all means is that for small businesses, treading into Linux use should be done with some caution. Yet, many believe, it’s worth the trouble.

Cheap skate

The most compelling aspect of Linux is cost. The second and third most compelling aspects are cost, and the fourth…well, you get the idea. Richard Williams, product marketing specialist at Agoura Hills, Calif.-based Symark, a Unix and Linux security company, notes that as a former small-business owner, he looks at price first when considering any system. For the past few years, he says that Linux has become the darling of the budget-minded small business set.

“Linux is a good choice, because there are a lot of free versions,” he says, referring to various distributions available online. In the true spirit of open source, some programmers have put together distributions and are offering them freely to whoever stops by to do a download.

However, companies should be aware that “no cost” might mean that nothing is taken from the bank account, but there still might be impact to a bottom line because of administrative time. Implementing a free distribution usually isn’t appropriate for a company that doesn’t have a very tech-savvy individual in-house, especially because each distribution has its unique attributes.

Williams says: “It’s important to know that many of the free versions are configured with a lot of options enabled. Among those are things like line printing, mail programs, that kind of thing. A small business needs to understand what system will be used for what.”

He adds that another consideration when determining costs is in maintenance. Unix, Windows, and Linux all have considerably different upkeep needs, and when figuring out whether to jump from one to another, a company should factor in the time and attention it’ll take to keep systems running smoothly. For example, Williams notes that there tends to be more maintenance with free distributions, as compared to boxed distributions from companies like Red Hat. But, if a small company has an enthusiastic IT person who loves getting his hands all over Linux, then maintenance cost differences could be negligible.

For the majority of small companies that don’t employ programmers and high-level IT managers, it might make sense to investigate purchasing.

“It’s easier to buy something than to build it,” says Williams. “If staff isn’t familiar with compiling applications, you’ll want to look at distributions that are at their technology comfort level.’

Piecemeal approach

For companies that would rather not jump on the open-source train completely, there are many options for trying out the technology without having to dismantle the infrastructure to do it.

In his work with small companies, Penguin Computing’s founder Sam Ockman has seen a blend of proprietary applications and open source systems. His San Francisco-based firm builds scalable, high-performance Linux systems for large companies as well as small, and Ockman notes that there has always been small business interest in Linux, especially in start-up companies that like adapting systems to their needs.

“For many small businesses, open source and Linux in particular excels on the server,” he says. “So, that’s where they use it.”

Other options for implementing open source include a company’s intranet, which can be run using Apache. Ockman adds that open-source databases like mySQL have been gaining significant marketshare lately, since they give companies flexibility without the high price tags seen on other database apps.

Several open-source programs tackle specific office tasks, and small businesses might find it worth the time to investigate whether they’ll do the trick. For file sharing, Samba has been gaining ground, because it emulates a Windows server, bringing a level of familiarity to file sharing chores.

For anyone who’s growled at an Outlook screen, there are many open-source options to replace the Microsoft-created application.

“There are several e-mail programs that are fantastic for anyone looking to get away from Outlook,” says Ockman. Many boxed distributions feature such e-mail options, and others are available on the Web.

A company could also dabble in open source with just its browser use, by running Mozilla on the desktop. The browser has two versions, a classic standard edition and one called Firefox that has more functionality. Ockman leans toward the latter, because it has some heavy-duty security that puts browsers like Internet Explorer to shame.

“If you’re tired of system insecurity, download Firefox,” he says. “There are so many stories about Internet Explorer and its security holes. But those stories are very rare when it comes to Mozilla.”

It’s up to you

At this point, Linux isn’t for everyone. Although there are many distributions that make using it easier and cheaper, some small businesses that are doing well with what they have may not see a compelling reason to switch. And maybe they shouldn’t.

But in some circumstances, companies may yearn to cut themselves free from Microsoft service contracts, tinker with their own software, and explore the power of open source.

“It’s not difficult to mix open source and proprietary stuff,” says Ockman. “Actually, it’s kind of fun.”

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