How to pick the right operating system for your business

Many small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) – hesitant to switch to Windows Vista from XP – are seriously considering Linux as an alternative operating system (OS).

The Linux vs. Microsoft issue is once more on their radar screen, partly due to less than stellar reviews garnered by Vista, its undistinguished sales, and the growing popularity of open source software.

But while operating system vendors may want businesses to focus on the OS, at least one Canadian expert says it’s “actually all about the apps.”

An OS should be selected based on its ability to support applications on which the business depends, said Vince Londini, research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

He said companies should first determine which apps are needed to drive their business processes, and then figure out which OS will best support those apps.

Small businesses, with limited budgets and IT resources, are often attracted to Linux.

While users can purchase boxed commercial versions of Linux that include support, every Linux distribution is also available for free under the terms of the open-source Gnu General Public License, or GPL.

Once users decide which distribution they would like to use, they can simply download, burn, and install it on as many systems as they choose.

The software licensing fee is zero, compared with the $300 per seat for the full version of Windows Vista Business Edition.

For many SMBs significant savings from the absence of license fees is a big driver, said Russell McOrmond, Internet consultant and policy coordinator of The Canadian Association for Open Source or CLUE.

CLUE is a non-profit organization that promotes use and development of free and open source software.

But McOrmond also notes that an ill-informed OS buying decision could have undesirable consequences.

It could lead to your paying more for less, he noted. Worse – a bad decision could also involve sacrificing the potential productivity of your IT assets and workers.

Experts urge businesses contemplating a new OS purchase to be guided by the following considerations:

Application compatibility – Will the OS support the apps used by your business – now and in future? Will it support apps that are identical to or better than the ones used by your business?

There are a few key Windows-based applications such as AutoCAD and Photoshop that lack Linux replacements.

On the other hand thousands of other free applications are supported by Linux.

Also, most Linux distributions come with a copy of OpenOffice.org, which while it isn’t a feature-for-feature substitute for Microsoft Office, does the job for many businesses. (It also costs $500 less per workstation than the cost of Office Professional 2007).

Technical support For smaller firms, particularly those that lack a huge IT department, access to tech support is crucial.

The type of support you need should help you determine what OS you should purchase.

As many businesses use Windows and Mac systems, there are many more IT support providers for these systems in the market.

On the other hand, open source software products are backed by a large user-developer community, said McOrmond.

“These people are more open to helping users change or customize the software to suit their needs – something support providers [don’t] normally do within the licensed software model.”

The cost of technical support is also a vital consideration.

For instance, a copy of Windows Vista comes with 90 days of technical support via phone, e-mail, or chat that starts the day the product is activated. After that, Microsoft charges $60 per support incident.

Commercial Linux distributions offer similar, but less expensive, support options. The $60 packaged version of Novell’s community-supported OpenSuSE 11.0 comes with 90 days of installation support.

For long-term support, one option is SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (currently in version 10) for $50 per year. Some firms may want to go with Ubuntu and buy a support contract from maker Canonical, starting at $250 per year.

(Ubuntu users joke that simply googling for technical support usually results in the exact answer you’re looking for on Canonical’s forums).

User acceptance – Make sure your employers are prepared for migration.

Identify potential difficulties or issues that might arise when migrating users to a new OS regardless of whether the system is open source or proprietary.

Make sure those affected by the change are aware of the decision, and get their input.

IT skill set – After considering the training needs of users, it’s time to review the skill sets of the in-house IT team.

The ability of your IT department to support and manage the OS will be a crucial factor in the purchasing decision, according to Londini of Info-Tech.

Ask the following questions: What transferable skills applicable to the new OS are available? What sort of training is needed? Who will be trained? How much will training cost? Will it be cheaper to hire outside help for support and maintenance?

Support and maintenance contracts – Service support and software maintenance contracts have to be considered in the purchasing process.

Determine which OS support contract suits your need best for the price you can afford.

Consider multi-booting systems – Does your business really need to run on only one system? Perhaps your operations involve processes that require more than one OS.

Consider dual booting software that enables Windows OS to run on Mac machines, or Mac OSs to run on PCs.

Such products, McOrmond said, may be ideal for companies that need to run a particular program only at certain times and in specific circumstances.

“Say you’re a Linux shop, but need a Windows accounting application, which you only use on one or a limited number of machines, and only at the end of the month. It might be advisable to have that machine on dual boot.”

In the final analysis, Londini said, what’s important is not whether you choose a licensed or open source OS.

“It’s that you’ve gone through a comprehensive evaluation process to pick the system that’s right for your operation.”

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