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Let's Talk Open Source...

Some folk are just plain tired of paying Microsoft styled prices for software or have been so confused about pricing and licensing options that they have either purchased the wrong software or licensing options for their systems. This can cause several issues:

  1. You cannot perform the task you desired.

  2. You paid too much money.

  3. You have violated your licensing agreement.

Until very recently, there has not been desktop office or operating system software that can allow you to dispose of Microsoft based solutions entirely. Many have touted open source (free software) solutions for years. As an interesting technology trend for programmers and schools, it worked. As a viable alternative for today's highly inter-connected businesses, open source software had been less than ideal.

An example...

Advotech is a small business that typically uses Microsoft Pocket PC based smart phones, Microsoft servers, several desktop/laptop Microsoft O/S, and of course the latest version of Office. This constitutes an annual expense which many businesses wish they could reduce. Every year or so, I collect and try out various Linux distributions both to retain and refresh arcane Linux skills, but also to gauge the potential for using purely open source solutions in our own business. This year, I managed to migrate our service laptops and all related functions to a Mandriva 2009.1 X64 based solution set. Be sure when I tell you that between Linux distribution idiosyncrasies, hardware, and software compatibility issues, that this is truly a milestone in my experience with open source software.

I am no pointy headed open source super-advocate, but I am quite weary of paying the only company that consistently delivers some level of interoperability the exorbitant prices it charges every year for the dubious privilege of paying other software vendors to keep me from being vulnerable to every underemployed programmer with Internet access. The only other commercial desktop challenger, Mac OSX has about the same level of interoperability as the newest Linux distributions, but Apple adds excessive costs to the system in proprietary hardware (actually only a single EPROM on the system board and a Faraday cage enclosed case nowadays). This makes the best low-cost solution today an open source one.

How did that work for you?...

Some small amount of techno-weenie terms are required to describe what worked and what didn't, so please be patient. I will define anything that isn't in your local dictionary or a proper name.

Open Source Pros:

  1. Did I mention it is free?

  2. The system is faster than Vista 64 for identical applications and functions. Boot time to usable GUI is under 30 seconds on a system that boots Vista 64 in about 90 seconds.

  3. The system is enough like Windows to require few headaches for a new user.

  4. All used hardware was supportable.

  5. All used software had a compatible or even identical free replacement.

  6. Interoperability is better than MAC or Windows when it comes to exchanging files and network communications.

  7. Application or driver crashes do not halt the entire system.

Open Source Cons:

  1. The installation (partitioning {logical HDD segments} and boot loader {points system to the desired operating system during system start}) requires modifications to make the system easily usable. Partitioning and boot management specifics are beyond most users, but with most O/S installations done by system vendors or IT staff, this isn't a big issue.

  2. Special applications and hardware drivers have to be identified and setup to permit full functionality. This can be a big deal breaker if it isn't done right, or changes are not properly managed.

  3. A single piece of specialized network hardware specific to our local network had limited functionality under any Linux or Mac OS. Some hardware/software environmental planning is necessary to get the best possible results out of a migration.

  4. Initial system installation and configuration time was slightly higher than with a Windows based system and not as user friendly. Again not a deal breaker as most installations are done professionally or by enthusiasts.

  5. As a historical trend, Linux variants are somewhat slower to support new software and hardware options than Microsoft, but much more broadly support these things than Apple's Mac OSX. This just means it is a bad choice for businesses with high technology refresh rates.

  6. Specialized formatting of Microsoft documents like Macros, etc... do not translate. Similar to Mac Office interoperability.

What does it look like?...

The answer is that it varies depending on the distribution and the desktop window manager. Beyond that, the user interface is much more configurable than Windows or OSX and there are even user developed themes that look and behave like various Windows or OSX systems. My own setup under Mandriva 2009.1 using KDE 4.2.4 looks like this:

Overall it works as well for less money if...

That really is the point. During tight times like this, finding less expensive solutions to daily business issues really is the order of the day. There are however, some caveats. Any business considering moving from Windows to Linux has to know what they have in terms of software and hardware and they must be ready to change some processes where system compatibility is imperfect. It is always possible for larger organizations to move incompatible applications to a virtual server, but small businesses can rarely afford the largess of even one dedicated server. This means they will have to spend time/money on planning and executing the migration.

Will those costs balance out over the long run? For Advotech, the answer is mixed. We will move to a strictly open source desktop solution with virtual XP and Vista desktops available remotely for support of special applications and for training. We will maintain our current Windows Servers for now, but look forward to migrating them down the road both to lower costs and add to our solution repertoire. For other businesses with a sharp eye on the bottom line, I would say that a real cost benefit can be achieved by moving to open source software, but that it should be done in small steps until you are familiar with the system enough to move all your processes into an open source environment.

On that note, I would suggest obtaining one of the Linux Live CD-ROM based boot-able desktop solutions as a means of trying it out without breaking anything you are currently working with. Here are some links to to a few of the general purpose free Linux distributions. While all are open source and support the Linux Standard Base along with thousands of open source applications, they each have unique features, appearance, and pay support options.

Mandriva http://www.mandriva.com/en/download/free

Ubuntu http://www.ubuntu.com/GetUbuntu/download

Fedora http://fedoraproject.org/get-fedora

Debian http://www.debian.org/distrib/

Suse http://en.opensuse.org/Download

Gentoo http://www.gentoo.org/main/en/where.xml

Slackware http://www.slackware.com/getslack/

Written by Lyle Sharp

Copyright 2009 Advotech, LLC


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Last updated on 09/08/2009
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