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Open source 101

Despite the adoption rate, Linux is still a work in progress, and as it matures, there are a few lessons to learn.

As Linux adoption grows with ever-greater speed, many businesses and individuals that haven’t yet jumped into the open source waters might be finding themselves wondering how to take that plunge. It’s not a difficult task, as it turns out, now that stores are stocking Linux-based computers and more sophisticated open source software abounds. Even Wal-Mart is making a play for the Linux-minded, with a budget PC running Linux instead of Windows.

Buying some equipment loaded with Linux-backed programs is only the first step in getting educated about open source, however. Despite the adoption rate, the system is still a work in progress, and as it matures, there are a few lessons to learn:

It’s not Windows.

Although it sounds like an obvious point, many people actually do expect to fire up a Linux-based program and see all the familiar icons and features of a Windows operating system. That’s likely because for many users, computing equals Microsoft’s look and feel, and seeing something different will take more adjustment than they might have thought.

“With some of the advancements in open source, the Linux environment has come a long way,” says Wayne Bishop, president of Seattle-based Arbutus Software, which advises companies on technology implementation and strategy. “At this point, Linux is more like a Mac interface, specifically OS X. But it’s not like Windows.”

He adds that the appearance and navigation of most open source programs doesn’t differ radically from Windows, but it’s enough to make most people realize there’ll be a learning curve before they’re clicking comfortably. Fortunately, Bishop says, the curve isn’t too daunting. “I think once people give up trying to compare it to Windows, they’ll find it’s surprisingly easy to use.”

There might be fewer features than you expect.

There are a variety of open source-based applications, and many of them are rife with all the bells and whistles of commercial software, but Bishop says the majority are just what they appear to be: streamlined programs written by developers who love putting software tools together.

Because of this, some programs may not seem as integrated or seamless as they should be. “Most open source projects aren’t quite as robust as commercial software,” Bishop notes. For example, Windows has features that allow you to monitor certain parts of the system, like how much disk space remains. Bishop said this isn’t a default feature in Linux systems, so users that look for it might be searching in vain.

To take full advantage of open source, you need reliable support.

Buying a Linux-based PC from a retail outlet like Wal-Mart is probably fine for the home user or small business that just needs a dependable PC for cranking out reports or e-mailing college buddies. But for companies that are putting a chunk of budget money into the operating system, it’s vital to have at least one Linux devotee on staff or on call to make sure that implementation and management is done properly.

Many smaller companies in particular have started investigating Linux because it offers cost advantages over proprietary systems, but Hewlett-Packard director of worldwide Linux marketing Efrain Rovira says that open source is not yet at the “plug and play” level. That means securing expertise is important, either through a consultant or an in-house IT guru.

“Especially when you first start using open source, there are migration issues that have to be handled by someone who knows how to do it,” says Rovira. “Both with migration and subsequent management, there are many moving parts.”

If IT support is minimal, Rovira notes, those cost savings can run the other way pretty quickly. “The price of getting Linux may be less expensive,” he notes, “but who’s going to run it?”

That doesn’t mean a company has to hire a Linux expert. At this point, most IT people have had at least some experience tinkering around with open source as well as Unix-based systems, and can handle implementations well. But if the company is too small for a full-time IT administrator, or it’s a home user playing around with Linux, there’s often insight to be had from local tech shops like Geeks on Call or the Geek Squad.

Not everything can run on Linux.

As much as the open source world sings the praises of the free and easy platform, the reality is that not everything can be ported to it. There are programs specific to certain businesses, such as CRM databases or some types of Web applications, that run better on proprietary systems. With the amount of attention going into open source, it’s likely that this situation will change in the future, but for now, it’s worth the time to check and make sure that Linux can be integrated into a current setup without causing too much disruption, or effecting conflicts.

Rovira notes that sometimes companies assume that if they’re running Unix, a switch to Linux will be a snap, but that’s not always the case. Instead, he suggests easing into a migration, and starting from the outside in.

“We find that people are migrating on the edge of the network, with Web servers or applications that use Web interfaces,” he says. “Those are the areas where Linux is very robust.”

But if a company is running Solaris-based Sun servers, it’s often fairly easy to switch to Linux, a fact that has given Sun a black eye in terms of market share over the past few years.

Have fun with it.

Sure, Linux is potentially lower priced than its proprietary compatriots in the systems world. And yes, it can be used to provide a stable, secure platform for a variety of computing tasks. But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

“One of the great things about Linux is that you can experiment with it, and really play around with it,” Rovira says. “Maybe if you don’t have the stomach for risk, you don’t want to put mission-critical applications on it. But you can still see how it works for you in other ways.”

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