Small Business Dilemma: Open Source or Proprietary Software?

Small 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.

The Desktop

The desktop switch was easier than I thought it would be. I was running a dual boot MS Windows 98/2000 station. Stability was OK with my MS Windows desktop, but it was shut down almost every evening. I’d also reload all software every three months or so (Norton Ghost made that easy). Viruses were the biggest headache. I eventually ran into a snag with a piece of hardware and that is when I loaded Mandrake Linux.

The Mandrake Linux distribution came with KDE as its default GUI desktop. I liked it right away, although the fonts were functional, they weren’t nearly as nice as Microsoft’s. Later Linux distributions included better fonts, I’ve upgraded my Mandrake desktop to the latest version 9.1, and the fonts are beautiful. Although the KDE desktop is similar in function to a MS Windows desktop, there are many differences. There is no networking icon on the desktop and there isn’t a my computer icon. Instead you have all the removable drives on the desktop and a home icon. You also have different icons in the menu bar, but all of this is totally customizable. If you want, you can mimic the MS Windows desktop look and feel very easily. There is one feature that MS Windows does not have, it is the virtual desktop. This essentially increases the desktop user space by a magnitude of four, and this number can be increased to sixteen. It is similar to having a multi-head display, except you switch displays with your hands not your eyes.

We chose Sun’s StarOffice as my Microsoft Office replacement. StarOffice did a very good job with MS Documents and Excel spreadsheets. It had all the functions we used. The StarOffice suite interface is very similar to Microsoft’s Office suite interface. The learning curve is minimal. I’d venture to say that the average user would need about 2 hours training to get up to speed with StarOffice. A power user may need more time, but a minimalist user would need less. Retraining time for the office suite cost my company approximately $40.00 per employee. A total of $280.00 in retraining costs for the most used software in my company. We’ve switched to now instead of Sun’s StarOffice as they are basically the same package, with Sun’s version having a proprietary database and assorted templates. Either of these packages work very well when dealing with a Microsoft Word or Excel file formats. PDF documents are handled by Xpdf, GhostScript or Adobe’s Acrobat Reader v5.

For image manipulation, We use the Gimp or ImageMagick. I only do basic image manipulation, the Gimp is overkill for most of my uses. When I ran MS Windows, Photoshop was also more powerful than I needed, but the MS Image program was not powerful enough. Learning the interface basics, 1 hour.

Scanning is handled by XSane. XSane is excellent and uses a standard interface for all scanners as compared to the myriad of different interfaces that are written for the MS Windows environment. Learning the interface basics, 1 hour.

The Internet browsers that come bundled with Mandrake are Konqueror, Mozilla, Galeon, Opera Links(text) and Lynx(text). I mainly use Konqueror and Mozilla, although I do use Links now and then. Learning the interface basics, 5 minutes.

Mr Project takes care of project management, it is not compatible with MS Project but it is similar in design and performance. Learning the interface basics, 1 hour.

Flowcharting is handled by Kivio or Dia, both offer similar functionality to MS Visio but not compatible with the MS file format. Learning the interface basics, 1 hour.

I use the bundled KDE PIM functions, calendar (Korganizer), address book (Kaddress), email client (KMail) and replaced my paper sticky notes with Knote. If you like MS Outlook try Ximian’s Evolution. Learning the interface basics, 30 minutes.

Open source instant messaging is way ahead. I use GAIM, it works with AOL, Yahoo, MSN, Jabber and several others. One client, many services. Learning the interface basics, 5 minutes.

Desktop publishing is handled by Scribus. Scribus v1.0 just came out and it is very good. This easily replaces MS Publisher, but is not compatible with the file format. Scribus isn’t yet up to the same tasks as Quark Express, but it is an excellent package. I’m sure as it progresses it will offer everything all the “top” proprietary packages do. Learning the interface basics, 1 hour.

The Konqueror file manager is similar in function to MS Explorer. I prefer the functionality in Konqueror a bit more than MS Explorer, but this is totally user preference. Learning the interface basics, 5 minutes.

The reason I used learning the interface basics instead of retraining time is because every user has a different proficiency level at certain software packages. I believe being able to use the package for what it was meant for is all that is needed for retraining time. Others may argue that a user must know how to use all the tools of the package in order to be considered proficient. I am only worried about productivity.

All following prices are in US dollars.

Total Desktop Proprietary Software Costs: $1000.00
Total Server Proprietary Software Cost: $4237.00

Desktop Software
Microsoft Windows 2000/XP: $200.00
Microsoft Office SBE: $200.00
Microsoft Project: $250.00
Microsoft Visio: $100.00
Photoshop: $450.00
AOL Instant Messenger: Free
Internet Explorer: Included with OS

Server Software
Windows 200x File and Print Server (10 user): $1199.00
Windows 200x Server & MS Exchange Server 2000 (10 user): $3038.00

Open Source
Total Desktop and Server Open Source Software Costs: $69.00

Desktop Software
Mandrake Linux Distribution (Includes everything below): $69.00 (Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw)
Mr. Project
KDE Kivio
The Gimp
Evolution (outlook clone)

Server Software
Mandrake Linux with Samba & CUPS(Unlimited Users)
OpenLDAP, PostFix & WebDAV

Our Accounting tasks are handled by Appgen’s “My Books”, a proprietary software package. It works with Microsoft Windows, Linux, Unix, and Macintosh. I use the $99.00 package which is comparable to Intuit’s Quickbooks. Appgen is much more stable, and has amazing network performance.

There are literally thousands of packages in the Mandrake distribution. I’ve only listed a few. You can download Mandrake and most other distributions for free. For $70.00 you get a box, book and disc. RedHat offers a similar distribution for less than $100.00. SuSE also offers the same type of software at a comparable price. There are dozens of Linux distributions. If you want support, these companies offer it depending upon the package you purchase.

When using any *nix environment the resistance to viral threats is currently exceptional. I say currently, because who knows what virus writers can come up with in the future. The whole model of *nix is more secure than the current Microsoft Windows model. Unix/Linux, by default won’t allow a user to enter vital system files, this is one of the reasons why viruses don’t have the same effect in the *nix environment. MS Windows can be made secure to a point, but it was designed with users (and unfortunately viruses) having full access to the system files. Viruses have an easy time getting to the MS registry and corrupting the system.


If you are starting a business or already own a small business I suggest giving open source a try. The cost savings are incredible. Stability is exceptional. Compatibility is very good. You may choose to stay with the Microsoft Windows operating system, yet still save thousands by using open source software for the office suite, servers and image manipulation. If you choose to change the operating system to Linux or FreeBSD you will have increased stability, lower maintenance costs and excellent virus resistance.

The choice is ultimately yours, now that there is a choice!

About the Author:
My name is Alex Chejlyk. I own and operate a small business (10 years) that performs IT tasks for other small businesses in the area. I’ve been computing since the early 80’s. I started out with CPM then to DOS, LANtastic, Windows 2.x, Apple, OS2, Windows 3.x, Be, Windows NT/9x/2K/Xp, Unix, and Linux.


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