SMEs are discovering the cost gains to be had from deploying open source software, but only after doing an impact analysis to see if they can cope with the change.
Without the cash to waste on expensive and difficult to justify IT systems, small and medium-sized enterprises have to rely on inexpensive hardware and software. This is one of the main reasons why open source is proving so attractive to cash-strapped companies.
Much open source software relies on the Gnu General Public Licence. The licence supports what open source advocate the Free Software Foundation terms "free" software, as in freedom of intellectual property rather than at no cost.
The licence enables companies to modify and distribute software source code, and even to charge for the service, provided they document the modifications, charge nothing for the licence and make it clear that others can change and redistribute the work.
Created in 1991, the same year as the Linux operating system, the General Public Licence has been the basis for many commercial-grade software products since. Because open source has a technical background, some people perceive it as being too difficult, but small businesses that are already using it disagree.
Stephen Lockhart, IT manager for pharmaceutical development company Strakan, has been running his office on SuSE Linux for many years. He uses a Linux expert from a third-party services company to manage the system, but this support is only needed for one and a half days a week. "That shows you the reliability of this environment," he said.
When his Boston office suffered a disc failure, he hired IBM to repair the hardware but, rather than using a software professional to reinstall the system, a member of staff in the Boston office installed the SuSE program. "We did everything else over the wires," he said.
Nigel Atkinson, managing director of open source software developer Neoworks, explained that an entire server infrastructure can be built using open source. The Linux operating system is freely downloadable and freeware product Sendmail can be used for e-mail.
Dynamic websites can be created using Apache web server backed by the PHP scripting language, which is a good alternative to Sun's Java Server Pages or Microsoft's Active Server Pages.
The MySQL database can be installed alongside Apache and can be administered using free software such as PHPMyAdmin. The Unison file synchronisation product can be used for back-up,
Open source infrastructure tools are common, but server-based open source business applications can be harder to find. Business accounting software for the UK market is one area where open source is lacking, according to Malcolm Yates, strategic alliance director at SuSE.
One of the most popular open source accounting packages, GnuCash, is not targeted at business, although Lockhart said small companies might be able to use it. Kroupware is another open source groupware project which offers an alternative to commercial products. Suppliers are also beginning to target Linux with their applications, even if they do not all release them as open source products.
Companies often have other server operating systems and applications running alongside open source systems. At one level, integration can be almost a plug-and-play process, using the Samba tool to connect Windows PCs to Linux servers, for example.
Integrating applications may be slightly more difficult, but Robert Neuschul, technical director of IT consultant Imagine, said it could be done with a little programming. He said it is important to consider the implications of open source in six months' time
"Think about what you want to do, and what you need to do," he said. This may not always be the same thing. An impact analysis can include issues such as training requirements and migration.
The case for open source on the desktop is far less clear than it is on the server. Linux On the Desktop: The Whole Story, a report from analyst group Gartner, found that the total cost of ownership of a Linux-based desktop compared to a Windows-based systems depends on many factors, not just the licence fee of Microsoft software. For example, it found the total cost of ownership of a Windows 2000 or XP desktop is less than for Windows 95 or 98.
The desktop applications a company uses will also affect migration costs. Complex applications with specific features that a company cannot afford to lose may have to be rewritten for Linux. However, if the range of tasks is fairly narrow, the case for switching is more convincing.
Sun recently announced that its open source desktop, Java Desktop, will include Linux, along with its Staroffice suite, which competes with Microsoft Office. Staroffice is based on the Open Office open source desktop suite, but Sun has tweaked this to improve integration and create a more Windows-like experience.
Sun will be charging a £60 a year licencing fee, which UK desktop product marketing manager Tony Warner said is more of a subscription-based model, which is what appears to be driving people away from Microsoft towards open source systems.
Making the move to open source can bring benefits, but a proper impact analysis is essential. This will include understanding how open source can change applications and affect business processes. Get it right, and you could make considerable savings.
General Public Licence: www.fsf.org/licenses/gpl.html
SuSE Linux: www.suse.com/us/index.html
Sun Microsystems: www.sun.com/index.xml
Open Office: www.openoffice.org
Linux Professional Institute: www.lpi.org
- Open source is about intellectual freedom, including the ability to tinker with the source code. It is not always "free of charge"
- There are many open source infrastructure tools available, from the operating system upwards. Many of them are free and are viable for commercial purposes
- Cost savings are one of the biggest benefits of open source
- Open source licences are less restrictive than subscription licencing for proprietary software
- The benefits of open source on the desktop are less clear than its benefits on the server, according to research from Gartner.
This was first published in September 2004