by Josh Morse
Last month I explained a bit about the legalities and business practices surrounding the open-source movement. This week I will be exploring open-source options available to businesses.
One of the most popular open-source solutions today is the Linux operating system. Linux comes in a variety of distributions, including Red Hat, Mandrake, and SuSe. While each uses the same core software (called a kernel ), they all have slightly different interfaces and included software. All the major Linux distributions can be downloaded for free, or purchased with technical support for prices ranging from $20 for a simple one-user copy, to $500 or more for an enterprise-server edition. Compared to Microsoft’s Windows Server, which starts at $999, that isn’t all that bad, and a free user copy is definitely cheaper than a $200 copy of Windows XP. But price isn’t everything.
While Linux is a capable operating system itself, it is not compatible with many pieces of Windows software. While there is an excellent (and free) office package ( www.openoffice.com ) that is fully compatible with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, it does not support Microsoft Access. Programs like QuickBooks and Outlook are also out. Plus you have to factor in the costs of training employees to use a new, unfamiliar operating system. As a result, Linux is mainly used in the office backroom, where its low price and excellent server security can provide advantages for businesses that run their own servers. Combined with open-source web solutions like the popular Apache Server ( www.apache.org ), Linux yields a secure, low-cost server for your corporate webpages. However, if you have an employee who just needs a word processor and spreadsheet program, then Linux may be a viable single-user solution as well.
Just because you are using Windows doesn’t mean that there aren’t other open source solutions available. The previously mentioned OpenOffice ( www.openoffice.org ) has a free Windows version, and is an serious alternative to an expensive Microsoft Office solution, though employers should be warned that there are many minor differences that require some adjustment. The open-source database MySQL (http://www.mysql.com)will also run on both Linux and Windows platforms, and competes directly with Microsoft’s SQL Server. MySQL has much of the same functionality as SQL Server, including several other open-source graphical interfaces, though Access users will find it harder to integrate Access databases. MySQL is free under the General Public License for internal company use, though if you want to make it available to your customers you may have to purchase a commercial license.
One of the most publicized clashes between proprietary software has come from the current browser wars, where Microsoft’s dominant Internet Explorer is now facing competition from the Mozilla Foundations Firefox web browser ( http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox ). Firefox has been hailed “a safer, better choice for Internet browsing” by CNET.com. Possessing built-in pop-up blocking, an expandable search bar that can use engines from Google to Ebay, and clutter-reducing tabbed browsing, Firefox has definite advantages over the outdated Internet Explorer. Users seem to agree, as CNN reports that Internet Explorer has dropped from 96% to 89% of the browser market in the past year, largely due to Firefox. And of course, Firefox is both open source and free.
There is no arguing that most companies will not be able to adopt a totally open-source solution, and many would not wish to. But the low prices, abundant features, and strong security of some open-source products at least merit a look.
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