The benefits of Linux for SMBs

Contrary to seems logical, not many SMBs have deployed open source software. Here is one that has to great effect

There would not be much point in manufacturing very low cost boxes that simply didn’t work. Many of the chips and other equipment included in the boxes are commodity items that are freely available to all companies. Competitive edge comes from smart design and manufacture of well performing and reliable boxes.

Anthony Walton, chief executive of SMB Access Devices points out that it’s really quality that has cemented his company’s strong market position. "We’ve held our market share of 10% on the basis that [our products] are very reliable. The set-top retailers hate returning equipment more than anything. Our boxes have a return rate of 1%; the average industry rate is around 7% so we are really holding our own in there on reliability and also on performance."

The company’s business maintains a design philosophy that allows the company to use a relatively small number of engineers to design quite a large number of products. The company was adamant that it didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of rivals burgeoned with engineers. Yet even with this doctrine, Access Devices realised that even though it was keeping down the number of engineers per product, the number of IT support engineers in the company was actually going up.

Anthony Walton is very clear about the reasons why: "This was a lot to do with using Windows as a server system; in terms of the update efforts keeping desktops at the same level all the time, and interoperability issues between the different levels of the different versions of Windows. Every time we bought a new PC we were introducing a new operating system; you either had to bring all of the other machines up [to meet the new one] or drag the new machine back to meet the older ones."

Cost was also an issue, but not necessarily the cost of the licences of the operating system but the cost of people to support the operating system. Access Devices decided towards the autumn of 2004 that it simply had to make a change;and that change was to embrace Linux-based technology.

Access Devices feels that it was steered in a way by its decision because its software team had been involved in the open source movement and other engineers were very familiar with Linux regarding reliability and performance. The Access Devices engineers were using two PCs in their work: one for engineering work and one for office applications. Anthony Walton does concede that if the company hadn’t had such in-built knowledge, it may well have not been so keen to move to Linux.

"If we hadn’t been so confident in the capabilities of Linux it would have been a much more difficult decision to make," he accepts.

Yet despite having no technical misgivings, Access Devices did need some help in terms of using Linux to add value to the business. To rectify this problem it produced a tender document and a request for information based on the findings of a key committee within the company encompassing key parts of the business that would be most affected by any change.

"The committee had indicative members including those from graphics, software, finance etc. We took people who we thought would have the most difficulty in the transition to guide us. We also picked one or two naysayers to get their opinion," says Walton.

One member of the committee was head of marketing Anthony Allison. He recalls: "We have an extensive range of graphics material for user guides and packaging. Our [business's] range of software is extensive: we had to be sure that the entire range of applications would work with the new systems."

The company that best suited the needs of Access Devices and offer the potential for adding most value was Weybridge-based Sirius, a founding member of the Open Source Consortium and a consultancy that offers enterprise open source deployment capabilities.

With Access Devices, Sirius’ basic approach was to bring a broad vision of what Linux could offer and then focus on what part of Open Source had best fit with the company’s operations. This impressed Anthony Walton. He says: "The first thing they said was 'don't be blinded by Linux; Linux is a huge success and your engineers love it but it its not all that’s out there.' [Sirius] introduced a number of products that replaced Outlook, our calendar system and other tools.

"They broadened our minds to what open source was and used their experience to introduce this to the company [in a way that] didn’t introduce frictions. We were impressed with Sirius’ enthusiasm more than anything and also their vision gelled with us: they talk business."

The replacement programme was six months, beginning Christmas 2004, a "mad, mad time when half of our products are sold”, reveals Walton. "It could have blown up horribly but it was managed properly by Sirius and our IT department. Sirius did a very good job and there were people here at the key times to deal with problems as they happened."

Making the change over the Christmas holiday ensured that all problems were dealt with over when most staff were not present. Walton insists that most of the transition was taken up with planning and management. He adds: "It’s gone relatively smoothly with only one crash so far. We’ve now got a much more stable and better protected system."

Specifically, Access Devices sees Linux as much better at being able to deal with worms and viruses and no longer would PCs crash on a regular basis.

As seems the normal case, Access Devices made the switch with the mail server first, then the file server and then over to the desktop. The last things to change will be the company’s laptops and personal digital assistants. What won’t be going to Linux right now is the internal operating system of the set top boxes: Walton regards Linux here as creating too big an overhead and incurring too large  a cost per unit.

Another functional benefit was that gong to Linux solved a problem regarding interoperability between documents created by the  company’s PCs and marketing documents created using Macintoshes by the internal marketing department and by outside  agencies. Walton readily concedes that one of his greatest fears was compatibility issues regarding open source documents and those created by other companies using Windows. He says: "There have been some incompatibilities with documents received from external sources but these are no worse than dealing with different levels of Windows. In moving to Open Office [as a replacement for MS Office] there have been a lot of advantages."

That said, like any transition, Access Devices experienced some snags and teething problems. Yet Walton asserts that there has been nothing of any real consequence, just "one or two items with compatibility problems and format differences; we’d got them anyway. There have been no real drawbacks over and above the existing problems with the MS products and a lot of these problems have gone away." Adds Anthony Allison: "In general terms, the implementation of a fairly sophisticated system was less troublesome than the day-to-day operation of the previous system."

That said, there are one or two things that Walton conceded may have been done differently. For example, he believes that more work could have been done with the financial side of the business. The company had used Sage under Windows but there was no Linux product. Walton says that he feels Access Devices had outgrown Sage anyway and maybe the company should have begun searching for a new system before the transition-at one period the company running two accounting packages simultaneously, that is Sage and a new Linux program for which Walton is very happy with.

Fundamentally, Access Devices has reaped very clear business benefits from open source. Anthony Walton doesn’t hesitate to state exactly how Access Devices is now a much more streamlined and flexible a business: "We’ve taken 50% out of the cost of the people to support company because the system is flat across the company and it is much more stable, robust and easier to protect. There are two or three salaries saved there immediately and we will continue to make [savings]."

Walton sees that one day Linux will be used right across the company in terms of basic IT and in the products that it sells. However, the story right now is that, ultimately, open source has made Access Devices a more competitive concern adding benefit right across the company.

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