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Linux Means Business

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Can your company realize substantial economic benefits from Free Software? Michael Schwarz discusses how Free Software and Open Source software may offer a cost-saving alternative for smaller businesses.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The author of this article, Michael Schwarz, is planning on writing a book on SOHO Linux. Would a book that provides an unflinching examination of the technical and economic merits of free business software appeal to you? Please give us your feedback by using our message boards, below.
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Over the last few years, the GNU/Linux operating system has leaped from techno-geek obscurity to playing a vital role in many server rooms in large businesses all around the world. This didn't come as a surprise to the programmers and developers who worked with "real Unix" at work and adopted Linux early at home in order to have a similar environment on their PCs.

Enterprise or Entrepreneur?

As Linux matured, became stable, and acquired many of the features that only "real Unix" used to have, it was obvious to developers that porting any enterprise class software to the Linux environment required only the will to do it. Naturally, vendors of such enterprise class software required proof of the existence of a market in order to have that will.

Linux first attained this status in the niche of web servers. Apache is by far the dominant web server in the market, and although Apache runs on many operating systems (including Microsoft's Windows NT and many descendants), it is most numerous on Unix-based systems, and Linux-based systems are a plurality of such installs.

Apache alone did not a dot-com make, however. "Real" databases were required. Oracle became the first major ISV to port a "serious" business infrastructure application to GNU/Linux when they decided to release their flagship database server product for the platform.

After this barrier was broken, we began to see many enterprise products ported to Linux. Today, we have a world in which many major commercial business applications are available for purchase on the GNU/Linux platform.

That is not what this article is about.

The market for the products we have been discussing has been fueled by organizations looking to save some money on software licenses, but the primary cost savings has come from moving off of proprietary hardware servers from companies such as Sun, SGI, and IBM, and on to commodity PC server hardware. These companies already had infrastructure and expertise in Unix systems, so the costs of transition were quite small. For many kinds of business systems, the shift was a no-brainer.

But what about businesses that do not have such infrastructure? Small businesses that have office automation, file/print server networks and Office software? Maybe e-mail, web browsing, and an accounting package complete the picture.

The Software Elephant's Graveyard

So where does old software go to die? Small businesses and home businesses. I've done a lot of programming for Very Big Companies[tm], both as an employee and as a consultant. I'll take virtually any programming job, provided I think I'm a good fit. That means I have also done some work for charities and small businesses. I was surprised how much creaking old software there is in the small business and non-profit business sectors.

Sure, in almost every Very Big Company[tm] there's that one poor programmer who got tasked with maintaining that Foxpro application, and he's still at it, 10 years later—but that is the exception rather than the rule. T'aint so, folks, in the wild and wacky world of the small business. There are scads of MS-DOS-based Foxpro (and yes, even dBase) applications still running out there. I know several tax accountants who are on MS-DOS-based applications and will never leave them. They go to clients with their 2 Gig, Pentium 4-based laptops with Windows XP on them, open a DOS Window, and get to work!

This comes as a surprise to many people who have only ever worked in larger businesses. Why? Because in large businesses, the cost of buying new versions of software is much smaller than the cost of employees skilled in obsolete software. For the entrepreneur or small businessperson, this is often reversed. Employee turnover is not a major issue when you are the owner and sole employee.

Novell NetWare has largely disappeared from the Very Big Corporate[tm]market. It is still quite common in the small business market, in spite of the fact that every Windows box is essentially a file and print server.

Such businesses are slow to change their software technology because of the high license cost, even though they replace hardware every few years.

This market is almost completely dominated by Microsoft, perhaps in conjunction with Novell NetWare, depending on how long ago the business went "PC." Can such companies realize substantial economic benefits from Free Software? That question is what this article is about.

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