The Small Business Myth About Linux

Okay, I have been compelled to write this post because I just had a meeting with a small business owner here in Langley, BC today, only to have spent most of that time explaining and debunking the myths and stereotyping of running a Linux server for their small business, as opposed to running Misro$oft products. The main reason why I was approached by him was he heard that I could install and maintain a networking system at a fraction of the cost that he is paying now under his current set-up. He was talking in the order of up to $15,000 in just licensing fees alone to run his Mico$oft Server, and he was looking for ways to cut that cost. So he was very keen on finding ways to look for alternatives that would help him in cutting these costs, especially in software fees. I explained the number one difference between the two systems is cost: Linux is absolutely free of charge to install and run. What is added to the costs of the Linux system are the labour and maintenance fees for maintaining his system. The appeal to open-source systems is that small businesses are not high-jacked by licensing fees that keep mounting upwards during a version cycle, or per annum, and of course good service. So, how to convince him that switching over to a Linux server is the right step?

I always kick-start my meetings with a short introduction, then onto a (power-point) presentation, followed up by a more detailed outline of how a networking system functions in the everyday operations of a small business. So I usually start off with the question of what is a Server, and how it functions as part of the network. This particular business uses a network printer, so every workstation would be connected to the network, and all printing is shared by one printer. BTW, their printer at this location has a cute name: Behemoth (because of it size). Then I go into the more elaborate functions and operations of how Business Management Systems run, and then go over some of the main differences the Linux has as far as security goes.

The number one question I get asked above all else is, “will it run our Window$ machines,” and I always answer with an emphatic, “YES.” I would say, based on my experience, 90 percent of all functions work, most often, right out of the box, but in the end my success rate has been very close to 95 percent. There are some code that is so ridiculously written, and poorly maintained that even on a Window$ server its reliability is 50/50. Oddly enough, I have ran software that explicitly says, “built for Micro$oft only,” only to have it run flawlessly on the Linux network after a few tweaks and modifying some of the configuration settings. On Micro$oft’s part, they always give the disclaimer that they will not offer any support of their products on “other OS.” I always counter with the argument, “what kind of support were you getting in the first place,” and then the eyes roll up on every face in the room. A good example was this server/client drafting software that was so bug ridden, the down time on it was horrendous, but the business needed it to comply with their contractors’ software compatibility. Using WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) on Linux, which enables various types of foreign (Window$) programs to run inside Linux, I was able to set WINE to Win-XP, and miraculously that software worked—this was done just a week ago, well after Win-XP was officially closed by Micro$oft just a few weeks ago.

Security is most often the nexus of fear for most business owners that I encounter, especially when the words “open-source” are used. Whether it is email getting plugged up with spam, or the fear that some one, somehow, can freely go into their server and download all of their files, is the second most asked questions I get. This is probably the most time consuming part of my pitch because it involves, more or less, a lesson on what are the vulnerable holes in any network versus what users put onto the network that can cause harm. In simple terms, most hacks and malicious software are targeted towards Micor$oft, and most often caused by not keeping systems fully updated with their upgrades. Users on the other hand, are most often the reason why viruses get onto the network—and they usually target the workstation from within the LAN from which the program was installed on. Usually awareness is sufficient for prevention of these types of breaches. Open-source is most often just as secure, or in some cases more secure than other systems.

Upgrades is a contentious topic as well, as no business person can fully understand the concept of first having free software, and then have free updates on top of that. I guess for the garden variety capitalist, a free and open world is just the same a Liberalist wanting to completely take down Universal Healthcare, it is just unthinkable. One business owner that I worked from a few year ago kept saying, “what is the catch here…,” and I kept replying, “there is no catch.” There is a need for open software, mainly for people who want to be able to customize it, and add to it, to meet the user’s needs without any encumbrances whatsoever. I like the old saying, “would you buy a car if you could not look under its hood?”  Of course not. But, at the same time you want to know if what you are getting is the genuine goods—not created by some lone programmer from a third-world (or first-world) country with an agenda. Open Software is also different in terms of having bugs fixed a lot faster than most proprietary products do. This often boils right down to the technician’s skills of catching bugs and stomping them out as soon as they are spotted. A good IT can also program. Really, that is why I went to computer school, and that is what sets me apart from the “plug-and-play” types—I can write code, or at least read and understand it.

In closing, I cannot stress enough that in these times of economic uncertainty, saving money, working with less, and having reliable tools, is a constant worry in the business world today. It pains me when I see good money thrown away on bad products, especially for software packages that offer way more than what is needed by the business, at huge prices and bloated licensing fees that eat into profit margins. Mainly I see this as lack of knowledge on the business’ part, and an industry that is saturated by just one dominate player who monopolizes on the backs of consumers who are given little choice at the point of purchase on their hardware. There are solutions, and slowly industry is taking notice, as I see open-source software being used more and more today. The key question here is, are you willing to take the first step in your small business?

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