So, you're about to start a new company and you want to make open-source software the driving force behind all technology decisions. Outside of it being an incredibly noble and honorable cause, what are the key data points you need to fully understand before implementing this strategy?
The question might seem loaded. After all, every business is different, and the driving technology that helps a business to succeed varies. Even so, there are some universals that stand true across the playing field. Those universals apply to open source and closed source alike. But when you're considering starting up a company (or migrating an existing company), what do you need to consider when doing so with open-source software?
Let's examine six things you should know.
1. Open source will save you money
This debate needs to finally (and officially) be put to rest. Study after study has been done—some of which are sponsored studies by invested parties—but the truth of the matter is both initial and ongoing costs will be lower if you choose open source. Many of the old studies pointed to one particular idea that is, for the most part, no longer relevant—cost associated with training users. Here's the thing, 90% of what people do now is done within a web browser. Let's face it, most end users today could get by with a Chromebook and still be able to get their jobs done. No one needs to be trained on how to use a web browser. Furthermore, if your users have to be trained on how to use web-based software, the platform won't matter.
When you add to this the enormous cost you'll save on your company's backbone (server platforms and software), the savings really start adding up. Besides, on the server side, you're going to be using open source anyway. You can't escape it now. So, when you know opting for CentOS or openSUSE as your server platform could save you tens of thousands of dollars in licensing costs, why would you choose any other route? Ask any administrator who has worked with Linux servers, and you'll find those servers need far less maintenance and upkeep than the competitor solutions.
2. You're not doing anything really new
Consider this... enterprise-level companies are already depending on open source. They aren't just dabbling in various and sundry open-source projects—they depend on an array of open-source software to keep them functional. We're talking big data, and it doesn't get any bigger than that. A lot of startups who consider the open-source path assume they are an island, adrift on a sea. That could not be further from the truth. Everything you are considering has been done and done with great success. Consider companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter—all of which place the backbone of their business on open-source software. If they can do it, you can do it. And when you're unsure of how to proceed, you only need to follow their examples. Keep up with Google's open-source blog or Facebook's open-source projects.
3. Headaches will lessen
When working within a proprietary ecosystem, one of the biggest issues that will drain your budget and your productivity is system cleaning. With enough end users, the IT department can quickly become overwhelmed with malware and virus cleanup requests. When you use open-source platforms (such as Linux), this will not be the case. Though there are plenty who will argue against the use of Linux on the desktop, imagine how your bottom line would feel if productivity was seldom halted by malware and viruses? I'm not saying that productivity will never be put on pause, but you'll see a huge reduction in your stoppage frequency. Your IT department can then focus on what's really important, such as servers, networks, and security.
4. Your needs, your choice
When you're working with proprietary systems, you work how you're told to work. If you want Windows or OS X, you use their interfaces and adhere to how they dictate. On the contrary, if you work with open source, you work your way. If you don't like the way something behaves or looks, you change it. If you don't like the default user interface that ships with Ubuntu Linux, use a different flavor. With respect to customization and open source, there are no limitations. This is your business, and you should be able to make the technology conform to your needs—not the other way around. With open source, you get that.
5. You'll have to overcome a few hurdles
It won't be 100% smooth sailing (but nothing is in the world of business). If you have end users that don't work out of a web browser, you might wind up with file incompatibilities. Say, for example, you have clients that send you Word or Excel documents that rely on extended features. You might find that LibreOffice or Google Docs won't "translate" those features with 100% accuracy. When that happens, what do you do? You might have to pony up for an Office 365 license for that particular user. Or, what happens if you have a particular piece of proprietary software your business depends on?
Here's the thing... you don't have to dive into the open-source waters and never surface. There's nothing wrong with mixing the environment. If you can't do business with a particular piece of software, then you have to make an exception. The good thing about open-source software is that it plays well with exceptions. You drop a Windows machine into your network, and nothing will explode or rat you out to the open-source police. The good news is that an overwhelming amount of end users don't take advantage of the advanced features within Microsoft Office that tend to break compatibility with open-source solutions.
6. Try before you "buy"
With almost every conceivable piece of open-source software, you can try before you invest either time or money into a single piece of software. Even the operating system itself! You can download an ISO image of a Linux distribution and run it without making any changes to your system (called a Live CD or USB). You could download nearly every Linux distribution available, try them all out, and make your choice based on that process—all without having to install a single platform. And with most open-source web-based solutions (such as HRM, CRM, and CMS tools), there are demos to try or even virtual images you can fire up in VirtualBox (again, without having to install said tools). A great place to find virtual appliances to test is Turnkey Linux. Turnkey allows you to easily test systems such as GitLab, LAMP Stack, SugarCRM, ownCloud, OrangeHRM, and much more.
I predict, within the next five years, there will be a lot more small- to medium-sized businesses opting for open-source solutions on both servers and desktops. The landscape is nothing like it was five years ago. Open source is no longer just a testing or playground for developers or an ecosystem for the computer "l33t." Open source is a viable option for the digital age. If you're considering starting a company on an open foundation or migrating your existing company over to open-source software, consider these thoughts and move forward with your plan.
Have you considered open source for your company? If not, what's the major hurdle to overcome before it's an option? Let us know in the discussion thread below.
- The Linux desktop battle (and why it matters)
- 10 best uses for open source software in the business world
- SuSE enters the realm of storage in a big way
- Tech Pro Research: Transitioning from Windows to Linux Administration: A guide for newcomers
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.