posted by Alex Chejlyk on Wed 23rd Jul 2003 18:25 UTC
IconSmall business owners now have a software choice. Just a few years ago the only business choice was to either run legitimate or pirated versions of proprietary software. Open source is now in a position to challenge proprietary software on the business and home desktop.

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

If you are looking at operating costs, open source offers the least expensive computing environment for small business. While the quality of open source software varies from excellent to pre-alpha, the same can be said of proprietary software. Just take a look at some of the bargain bins at the local office superstore if you think all proprietary software is slick and polished. Care must be taken when choosing any software package.

Less than two years ago we evaluated our software needs and the cost of upgrading our OS licenses. We wanted to become fully legal and up to date with our software licensing. The desktop software licenses were going to cost approximately $1000.00 each, that was $8000.00 total in desktop software licensing. The servers were going to cost us approximately $4235.00 in software licensing, as we were going to upgrade to MS Windows 2000 Server and Exchange 2000 Server. This $12,235.00 figure was extremely high for our shop. We'd also have less available software, because we were not going to purchase software that wasn't absolutely necessary. This is when we looked into using open source. Open source software provided all the tools we needed for less than $100.00, total. Re-training cost was all we had to pay for, that payment would be in the form of time. When the estimated cost of retraining was compared to proprietary software's licensing fee's, we made the decision to migrate to opensource.

A major migration concern was the ability of open source software to read and write in proprietary formats. It seemed that everyone was sending Microsoft Word formatted documents and Microsoft Excel formatted spreadsheets. Our primary concern was Microsoft Office compatibility. Luckily, the amazing open source software developers have made great strides in the compatibility area.

The Servers.

Servers were the easiest switch. We were running a Windows 2000 file and print server. The Windows 2000 server was a decent performer. I rebooted it after every patch and at least every month for best performance. It became infected (we used Norton AV) with only two viruses after a year of service. The fear of losing it to a virus was always in the back of my mind. As a replacement we reviewed two open source operating systems, Linux and FreeBSD. Linux and FreeBSD are powerful, ultra stable operating systems that perform the tasks of a (NFS) file server natively.

We chose Mandrake Linux as the file server. The Samba server software package was run to allow interoperability with our MS Windows desktops. Mandrake also comes with CUPS, a modern printing system for Unix/Linux environments. The printers were shared via Samba to the MS Windows clients. Mandrake Linux solved the file and print server switch. Stability is incredible. I have the Mandrake server download and install its patches, automatically, every evening. I haven't been forced to reboot for stability reasons since this machine was put into service. I do power down during thunderstorms, and reboot when I apply a Kernel patch. No viruses have shown up on it. We currently use Sophos AV, just in case.

We had a MS Windows NT 4.0 server running MS Exchange 5.5. This system was running, but was erratic. Sometimes it ran like a champ for two months then slow to a crawl in one day. The MTA would also die unexpectedly. The system logs didn't indicate why this was happening, the MTA would just stop. A reboot and it would run great again. This was annoying, but I could live with it. Backing up the data stores wasn't easy on that machine, either. The box was compromised once and used as an open relay thanks to a Trojan that got in and opened it up to spammers (my fault the AV was disabled for a service pack reinstall). When I think about it, I hated that box! Switching the MS Exchange system was a challenge. At the time, I couldn't find any single free open source software that would perform all of Microsoft's Exchange functions.

We eventually chose Postfix as the email replacement and OpenLDAP as the shared address book directory (very difficult to setup). The calendar sharing was never really an issue because we never shared our calendars, but WebDAV could be used to share calendar data. OpenLDAP was confusing to configure, but after at least 100 pages of how-to's I got it running. Postfix was a breeze. I've never had to fiddle with either of these since the install. The patches are automatically applied, if they require a service restart, I do so at my convenience. Stability is exceptional. It is difficult to convey the difference in maintenance time. I spent at least 2 to 4 hours a week doing something on the MS Windows servers. The Linux servers don't even have monitors on them! I check in on them via ssh about once a month, but so far they are as dependable as a brick. I spent at least 5 hours on OpenLDAP, 4 hours playing with Samba and 2 hours learning Postfix basics. This is one of those hidden cost things about open source. On the other hand, Exchange 2000 is totally different from Exchange 5.5 so that would take at least 5 hours to learn enough about it to safely deploy it for our organization. I spent countless hours fiddling with Windows 2000 server in the past, so it is hard to say how much I spent learning it, a safe figure would be 10 hours before I was ready to deploy it. These figures may be low, but I knew NT 3.5 through 4.0 and Exchange 4.0 through 5.5.

Table of contents
  1. "Intro, Servers"
  2. "Desktop, Conclusion"
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