Is Linux the right choice for SMEs?

Cheap software is a top priority for SMEs so software which is effectively free, like open source, would seem an obvious choice....

Cheap software is a top priority for SMEs so software which is effectively free, like open source, would seem an obvious choice. But just how easy is it for a small firm to swap Windows for Linux?

One group set up to promote open source take-up within businesses is OpenForum Europe. Graham Taylor, programme director for OpenForum Europe, says the technical functionality of open source code is ahead of users' perceptions. People generally think that because open source is free, it is low quality, he says. This is not necessarily the case.

According to a survey conducted by OpenForum Europe, the biggest concern for users is getting technical support. But this situation is rapidly changing. "Companies like IBM, HP/Compaq are offering open source support," Taylor says.

Open source not only saves on software costs, it can also offer long-term savings. The software is effectively free, says Eddie Bleasdale, managing director of NetProject, an organisation promoting standards for a secure desktop environment based on open source technology. "Open source can reduce IT costs to 30% of today's costs," he points out.

Choose when you upgrade
Instead of being forced to upgrade software (and usually hardware to support the more powerful software) by commercial software companies like Microsoft, "with open source a user can take control of their IT strategy," Bleasdale says. "You decide when you wish to upgrade, not the vendor."

This can be particularly important for users, such as SMEs, which cannot afford to keep up with the pace of change in commercial software. By way of an example Bleasdale cites one local authority he came across that was half way through a Windows 2000 rollout but was unable to purchase new Windows 2000 licences to complete the rollout.

Microsoft only offered the local authority Windows XP licences. To sustain its business model "Microsoft constantly forces users to upgrade," Bleasdale explains, "but nobody will force users to upgrade open source to generate money".

What would you do without the Office?
The main question for many SME users is whether open source can provide the rich desktop environment offered by Microsoft Office. Bleasdale is confident open source can deliver. He says Open Office, the open source office productivity suite (previously called StarOffice), may not be as good as Microsoft's "but it is good enough". Moreover, he says that Open Office can read Microsoft files, which overcomes one of the big headaches with many open source programs - incompatibility with mainstream software.

The cost element is clearly a high priority for SMEs given the high cost of commercial software. But experts warn that using open source involves more than just the free software.

Peter Scargill, IT vice-president of the Federation of Small Business says: "The cost of Microsoft applications is very high for SMEs. You can get a PC for £400 and pay the same again for Office." But, he adds that open source raises many problems for SMEs. "I talk to a lot of Linux enthusiasts," he says, "but many SMEs just don't have the knowledge necessary. They want to be sure they can communicate and get support and that means industry standard products".

Interim IT director and columnist Colin Beveridge recently gave his thoughts on the open source issue. Beveridge feels that many supporters of open source see it as an alternative to Microsoft software. Beveridge feels this is the wrong approach. "We need seamless interoperability between [software] components," he notes.

Simon Moores, chairman of the Microsoft Forums user association, notes the difficulty users face buying Linux. He says that Linux will be ready for SMEs "when you can walk into PC World and buy a Linux-based applications server, as easily as you can buy an Apple iMac."

Cracking the code
It is worth noting that open source means users have full access to the source code. This gives users the freedom to fix problems and enhance functionality of their open source software. But Ovum analyst Gary Barnett says this flexibility may not be such a good idea.

"It can take longer to look at open source code than write something yourself," he notes. Barnett also advises users in small organisations with less than 200 desktop PCs to keep their software development efforts to a minimum.

He says that with many popular open source products, such as the Apache Web server, 99% of users do not look at the code. "There are plenty of open source products which are ready for SMEs on the premise that they will never need to look at the actual source code."

This, Barnett says, makes open source ideally suited to applications like extremely low-cost file and print servers. But many SMEs have standardised on Microsoft systems like Windows NT and the Microsoft Exchange e-mail server. People need to ascertain the cost of disruption to an existing IT infrastructure when open source is introduced in such an environment.

"Total cost of ownership is not just about the cost of the software." This is free for open source. Barnett points out that users also need to account for support, internal staff costs and the difficulty integrating open source with an existing environment.

Freedom to choose
Open source can be used by SMEs without too many headaches so long as users choose well-supported products. Certainly OpenForum's Taylor believes that using open source Web servers and firewalls "is a no-brainer".

NetProject's Bleasdale reckons open source can provide a viable desktop alternative to MS Office. This could save businesses a considerable amount of money in terms of licence costs. But experts warn users to be cautious and check compatibility with de facto standards like MS Office.

Finally, just because the code is available, it does not mean that users have to touch it. As Ovum's Barnett points out, it can often take longer to understand the open source code than to develop a program from scratch.

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