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Making the switch

Taking advantage of what open source has to offer can mean widely varying degrees of commitment to the platform.

From most of what’s written and said about the subject, it would be easy to presume that open source is largely the province of hardcore programmers and dedicated shade-tree computer mechanics. However, taking advantage of what open source–and in particular, Linux–has to offer can mean widely varying degrees of commitment to the platform. If you’re thinking of adopting it for your business, here are a few pointers to keep in mind.

Take it easy

The conversion to a Linux environment from Windows should be a steady, deliberate process, especially when it comes to adding software. A nice thing about open-source software is that a savvy user can integrate it with most traditional software products, which makes it wise to do some picking and choosing.

“You need to decide if a 100-percent conversion is the goal,” says Patty Laushman, president of the Denver-based Uptime Group. “The best solution is typically a blending the of the best of open-source and traditional software.”

Sean True, the CTO of Boxborough, Mass.-based Audiotrieve, says the following lineup of software is a good starting point:

— the Linux operating system (instead of Windows);

— Apache’s Web Server (instead of IIS);

— the MySQL database tool (instead of Oracle or MS SQL Server);

— and the PHP Web development language (instead of ASP).

That common configuration, nicknamed LAMP (for Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) costs nothing to acquire and deploy, but could create maintenance expenses depending on how it’s used. And anyway, the cost of the software involved should be a secondary factor, well behind the extent to which the software will improve workplace efficiency.

“Don’t base your migration solely on expected savings on zero-cost software licenses,” says Evan Blomquist, co-author of “Linux for Dummies” and Linux instructor with Philadelphia-based Training Camp/TechTrain. “Software licensing fees are typically a small piece of the TCO pie anyway.”

True says that even with its advantages, Linux offers a trade-off. “There’s much less patching than you have with Windows, and much better uptime–over a year on one of my current servers,” he says. “But the tools are less standardized.”

Who’s it for?

Laushman says Linux also makes sense if you employ such technical workers as software developers and engineers–or, on the other hand, if you have employees who need only a few computer functions to do their jobs, such as call centers operators or receptionists, or who use nothing but word processors, spreadsheets, and Web browsers.

“They can do very well with a user-friendly Linux desktop distribution like Xandros or SUSE and the free open-source productivity package called OpenOffice, which is very similar to Microsoft Office,” she says.

Al Canton, president of Fair Oaks, Calif.-based Adams-Blake Co. (makers of Web-based SMB products like JAYA123), suggests making a comprehensive list of the software you’re currently running, and then finding out their open-source equivalents. Several Web sites, can help you with this. Some software is customized or vertical, meaning there’s no Linux equivalent. But even in cases like that, all’s not lost. A program like Win4Lin or VMWare will let you run most programs under Linux.

Getting away from the desktop, if there’s an area of your computing array that was made for Linux, it’s your servers. Linux has a solid reputation for being more reliable and harder to hack into than Windows-based products. However, Laushman points out, it might be a different story if your employees need to use collaborative tools such as shared calendars and contacts.

“This is the one area where open source software does not yet compete very effectively with Microsoft products, specifically Small Business Server,” she says. “If you don’t need this functionality, Linux is a clear choice. If your employees need to collaborate, you can still use various open-source software, but you probably won’t save money.”

Laushman also says that if your business needs a Web server to host e-mail, Web sites, and applications, it might make sense to have two servers–one running Linux and one running SBS.

“Because server hardware has come down tremendously in price over the last five years, there is not a huge up-front cost to buying the hardware,” she says. “Also, most Web developers coming out of school today have been trained on Linux and open-source platforms.”

The truth is out there

Another advantage to using software that runs under Linux is that developers are almost always willing–in fact, eager–to answer questions about their products and troubleshoot when necessary. Part of the whole open-source ethic is constant refinement and improvement of the product, so programmers are always happy to get tips about buggy programs.

Hardware, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as touchy a consideration. Off-the-shelf PC hardware should do the job, but the LAMP configuration tends to require only half the memory and CPU muscle that a Windows setup does.

“Many folks run Linux on an old Pentium 2 with 128MB of RAM,” says Canton. “But you really will want at least a 1.2GHz processor with 512MB of RAM. Linux is small (unlike Windows) and 20GB of hard disk should be plenty. But more is good especially if you’ll be doing a dual-boot (running Windows alongside Linux).”

A factor that’s easy to overlook when migrating to Linux is how well the people affected by the switchover will take to it. True points out that the software you decide on might depend partly on the temperaments of the people using it.

“The creative ones like the freedom the LAMP stack gives,” he says. “The cautious like the security that Microsoft provides.”

Blomquist agrees. “A good manager doesn’t invest in technology, he or she invests in people,” he says. “Do the same thing you did when your business migrated to Microsoft–find or train the personnel who can direct/implement the migration.”

The trick when considering flying the Windows coop for the supposedly greener pastures of Linux is to keep your options open.

“You will be amazed and shocked to see how many alternatives to Windows applications there are, and how good they are,” says Canton. “This is one of the biggest eye-openers for new open-source people find. At first they don’t believe. But after trying out things like the e-mail program Kmail, the Outlook lookalike Evolution, the Photoshop substitute GIMP, or the Firefox Web browser, they become believers.”

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