Small businesses with small budgets can save a lot of money by deploying open source software—at least in theory. The Linux operating system and office productivity software such as Open Office can be downloaded free. That sounds a lot better than paying $200 for each system's OS and $300-500 more for an Office suite.
Also in theory, large companies stand to save even more because they need so many more copies of each software program. Multiply $500 savings per machine by 100 computers and we're looking at substantial cost savings: $50,000.
But is open source really scalable enough to grow with your company? Let's look at some of the pros and cons of switching to open source solutions for both small and large companies.
The cost factor
We included the caveat that the savings mentioned above are theoretical, because deployment of open source software may carry hidden costs that affect the comparison with commercial software. For example:
- The learning curve for open source software may be greater, especially for end users who are not "power users." Depending on the particular distribution and the graphical interface, an open source operating system may require more technical skill to master.
- Administrative overhead may also be greater, as IT professionals are expected to master a command line interface and be proficient in scripting, writing their own device drivers, and so forth.
- Technical support may not be provided by the vendor, or may cost extra. Of course, there are also commercial distributions of open source products that do include tech support, but their cost is not zero and may even approach or exceed that of proprietary software.
For example, according to the Red Hat web site at http://www.redhat.com/rhel/compare/server/, a per-system annual support subscription for Enterprise Linux AS costs $1,499 (standard) to $2,499 (premium). Thus, in evaluating or planning for an open source deployment, always be sure you're comparing "apples to apples" by including any additional costs for training, overhead, support, etc.
Benefits of Open Source
Cost considerations aside, open source software can provide a number of benefits, especially to technically savvy users. These include:
- Because the source code is available and the licenses generally allow modification, your in-house programmers can customize it to fit your needs.
- Another benefit is "security through disclosure"—anyone can examine the source code and discover security flaws, and anyone can write fixes for them; you don't have to wait for the software vendor to do so.
- Open source software that has matured and been through the peer-review process continually for years is reliable; as an example, much of the software on which the Internet runs (DNS, Sendmail, Perl, etc.) is open source.
- Most open source software enjoys a great deal of community support—user groups, web boards, newsgroups, mailing lists, etc. where you can go to ask questions and get help.
Open source advocates tend to "stick together" and share knowledge just as they share the software. However, in some communities you may find that "newbies"—both those who are new to technology and those who are skilled in Windows administration but have little experience with open source—are not particularly warmly welcomed.
In the past, many open source users projected a somewhat elitist attitude and scorned anyone who found recompiling kernels "too difficult" or who wanted an intuitive graphical interface. In recent years, open source advocates have opened up their doors more and started recruiting average users as well as techies, perhaps realizing that the more successful users are when they try open source software, the more widespread and respected open source will become. This has led to the development of much more user-friendly open source programs.
Deploying Open Source in the small business environment
The trend toward making things more user-friendly makes it easier to deploy open source in small business environments where you may not have highly skilled full-time IT personnel. However, just because it's free or low cost doesn't mean you should treat it more casually than expensive proprietary software. Planning and testing are just as important (and perhaps more so, when dealing with inexperienced users) as with any other software.
Small businesses may find it easier to start with open source servers, sticking with Windows (and/or Macintosh) on the desktop. This avoids the problem of the end-user learning curve, and if you have only a handful of desktops, they are likely to come with an operating system installed. Even if not, the cost difference for desktop operating systems for ten computers, for example, may be less than the cost difference for a single instance of a server OS. You can still save money by using productivity applications such as Open Office that run on Windows.
Deploying Open Source in the enterprise
In an enterprise environment, the sheer volume of machines makes any change in operating systems and applications a costly and time consuming undertaking. Whether you're switching to open source for servers, the desktop, applications, or all of the above, you should first test all of the new software thoroughly in a lab environment and then run a pilot program with one department or group of users before rolling out the change on a large scale.
The best time to make such a change is when you would otherwise be upgrading your current software. For example, if the operating system you're using is at the end of its support life and you're about to be forced into upgrading to a new version, that's the most cost-effective time to make the switch to open source.
Other deployment considerations
Switching to open source doesn't have to mean you're "out there on your own." Vendors such as Hewlett Packard and IBM offer services to customize and integrate Linux/UNIX software and hardware, perform on-site installation and assist with migration, training and support.
Open source software provides both benefits and challenges to organizations of all sizes. Properly chosen and deployed, open source operating systems and applications can scale to meet almost any need in both the server and desktop space.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.