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Serving up a new Red Hat version

Red Hat Linux 7.1 is a solid match for small businesses on a tight budget. Linux Advisor hed: Serving up a new Red Hat version dek: Red Hat Linux 7.1 is a solid match for small businesses on a tight budget.

I’ve heard all the reasons why small-business folks might be wary of using Linux to power their business applications. They think Linux is the operating system of geeks. They fear it’s too difficult to learn. They’re worried they won’t be able to get technical support. They’re concerned they might have withdrawal symptoms if they stop using Windows applications.

None of these things is true. In fact, though Linux began in the geek world, it is now easier to use than ever before. Training and technical-support options are abundant, and you can even run your favorite Windows applications on Linux if you like. So what’s to fear?

Recently, I’ve been comparing the costs and functional differences of using three different approaches to supporting business applications at small companies. In particular, I’ve examined the latest release of Red Hat Linux 7.1 and compared it to choosing shrink-wrapped, small-business software suites, or renting applications via an ASP to run all business applications. During my examination, I discovered that using Linux to support business applications is highly flexible and economically sound.

Functionally, you can find the same capabilities regardless of which approach you take. For example, you’ll find e-mail, collaboration tools, database and Web server solutions, security tools, and financial software with all these approaches. But there are cost differences and other concerns you should be aware of.

If you purchase a small-business software suite–such as one from Novell, IBM, or Microsoft–you should plan on spending from $450 to $2,500 to support your users, depending on which solution you choose. Many of these solutions also are sold with a specific number of user licenses. If you need to support more users, you’ll need to purchase additional licenses, which can add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to your costs.

Small-business suites also tend to bundle everything but the kitchen sink, and you may not need all the software that you’re purchasing. In addition, you’ll need to have technical expertise on-hand or be willing to train one of your staffers, since these software suites are rather complex to set up and maintain. Some software suites also have minimum hardware requirements for which you’ll need to account. If you purchase a suite that has beefy hardware needs, you’ll want to invest money in additional hardware as well.

Take out?

The idea of outsourcing your applications is appealing on a number of fronts. You can rent just the specific applications you need and pay for them with a fixed monthly cost. You won’t end up buying something you don’t need, and you can accurately forecast your budget, too.

InfoGenius Inc.’s Application Rental Guide contains a bevy of sources you might examine if you think about renting applications. Prices will vary substantially depending on the type of applications you need. Some applications (such as e-mail) are available for free if you don’t mind seeing advertisements. Others (such as faxing service) run from $10 to $30 per month while others (such as Customer Relationship Management software) can run hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month.

Since the applications are rented, you’ll likely not have to invest in server hardware or software. Your users can still maintain their desktops or laptops. They will most likely access the rented applications via a browser. Thus, renting applications will reduce software licensing and hardware costs. In addition, you probably won’t need to invest a lot of money in technical resources or training.

However, with outsourced applications, you need to worry about other things, such as security and the reliability (and, these days, survivability) of your provider. For example, if you put your company’s database or financial applications with an outsourcer, will prying eyes be able to get at your sensitive information? Worse yet, if you outsource important company data, how will you get the data back should your provider cease to exist?

I find application rental ideal for some things, though. Web-based collaboration from vendors such as Webex is an easy way to set up online meetings or demonstrations regardless of where the parties involved are physically located. Likewise, renting a faxing service is quite convenient, especially when inbound faxes can automatically route to your e-mail account and when all users in the office can share the service.

Red Hat

That brings me to the latest release of Red Hat Linux–version 7.1–which costs $39.95. There is also a Professional Server version of the release, which runs $180. In addition, you can purchase Red Hat Linux together with IBM’s Small Business Suite for Linux for $475.

Like small-business suites and rented applications, you can find the types of applications you need to run your business. Red Hat will work with anything from a 486 machine all the way up to a multiprocessor configuration. New in this release is support for up to eight processors.

Getting Red Hat set up is automated and straightforward. In less than 30 minutes, you can complete the setup, which includes database support, e-mail, collaboration, faxing, and much more. You can select exactly the applications you wish to install, too. In particular, I like the fact that the installation process lets you configure the built-in firewall during the initial setup. You can choose different security levels or set the security attributes of common services, such as file transfer. Most network services are turned off by default when you set up Red Hat Linux to insure a more secure server environment.

Connecting your Red Hat server to the Internet is easily accomplished via the included graphical tools. Likewise, you can configure the bundled Apache Web server by using a graphical interface and the same holds true for other services, such as printing and DNS. This release also includes another Web server–Tux–which is a speedy performer.

You may wish to invest in some training for the staffers who will maintain the Red Hat Linux server, but there are plenty of low-cost options available from Red Hat as well as from third parties. Available documentation is easy to read and the answers to most questions can be found quickly.

This release of Red Hat greatly improves support for laptops. I set up this release on both a Sony Vaio and Dell Latitude, and everything worked just fine. In the past, I’ve had trouble getting Linux to work well with some laptop configurations, so the enhancements in this release are really helpful. New support for USB also worked well–I added and removed USB-supported devices (CD-ROM drives and floppy drives) without incident.

Red Hat offers a variety of support and service offerings that can match the demands of various budgets. For example, you might use the Red Hat Network’s Software Manager to receive secure, automated updates to the operating system and applications. There is a trial version of Software Manager available, or you might subscribe to the service for $20 per month.

If you’re worried about having withdrawal symptoms from missing those Windows applications, don’t–it won’t happen. You’ll find equivalent application support with Red Hat Linux, but if you’re really missing a Windows application, you can use support included with Red Hat Linux to run the Windows application from Linux. I tried this support to run the Peachtree accounting program and had no trouble at all. You might also try NeTraverse’s Win4Lin, which I often use to run Windows applications on Linux.

When considering Red Hat Linux, small-business software suites, and the possibility of renting applications, I find Red Hat the most economically sound and flexible approach among these three solutions. Will you use Linux to power your small business? Write to me.

Red Hat Linux benefits

The newest version of this major Linux distribution boasts even more functionality, making it a good bet for companies watching the bottom line. Some key advantages:

Leverages existing hardware Supports everything from 486 architectures to multi-processor systems Economical when compared to other approaches that support small business applications. Includes good support and easy setup for laptops and desktop systems Offers built-in security features Technical support options are available Training is available

Contributing Editor Maggie Biggs has more than 15 years of business and IT experience. She wrote this column on a Red Hat-powered laptop that was equipped with Star Office.

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