You’ve heard of Linux, and you may have even experimented with it. But is it smart to make the move to open source in your business, especially if you have a small or non-existent IT staff?

Linux is a freely distributed operating system that runs on a number of hardware platforms, including PCs and Macs. While it might be harder to kick-start an open source IT implementation, it may pay off in lower software and hardware acquisition costs. But will it work for you?

The decision isn’t always a Linux-versus-Microsoft issue, says Jamie Moore, president of Quinte Computer Systems Ltd. in Belleville, Ont., which develops and supports software that runs on Linux. Do you want to pay extensive licensing fees for software from a proprietary vendor, or do you want to pay for the configuration and maintenance of an open source offering?

While you can download open source software for free (or a nominal charge), you’ll still have to pay for ongoing support and maintenance. However, you could also save money on hardware, since Linux doesn’t require the use of high-end servers.

Because of the integration and skills required, the total cost of ownership often nets out to be the same as a Windows environment, says Mika Krammer, research vice-president with Gartner Group.

If you’re going to experiment with Linux, she says, make sure you know what the downstream impact is going to be on data and integration. Don’t jump into it thinking it’s a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Windows, because the migration itself isn’t always low-cost. And make sure you have the right skills to support and maintain an open source offering.

Other than online forums or message boards, there isn’t always a go-to person or organization you can turn to, says Moore. “You can’t really guarantee there’s always going to be a solution to support queries,” Moore says.

From a support perspective, your system integrator or reseller may not have the experience required to help you take advantage of your investment in Linux, says Krammer. Make sure your IT advisor is experienced in this area and can help you with the selection and implementation process. And be cautious of the vendors you do business with — follow up on references and make sure they have a track record.

If you’re dealing with a commercial Linux offering from a mainstream vendor like Novell, you can expect the same levels of support as with a proprietary offering, says Warren Shiau, lead IT analyst with The Strategic Counsel .

So what should you consider with a non-commercial open source offering? Find out how much vendor support is behind that particular project, he says. How much online documentation and collaboration is available? How mature is the project? If it’s still in the development phase, what are the timelines behind project delivery? How available are management and administrative tools? If you will have to build those out or rely on other projects to build those for you, then the cost of managing your IT infrastructure will likely go up.

After asking yourself all these questions, you may wonder why you should bother with open source, even if you can save a few dollars. But there are benefits to consider, other than cost.

Open source gives you the opportunity to try before you buy, says Moore. There are many 30-day software trials out there, but 30 days often isn’t enough time to get a true test of the software. And some say open source is more secure than Microsoft Windows, because there are fewer viruses targeting it, though this point is much debated among industry insiders.

Krammer says it may not prudent to go all the way with Linux because there isn’t enough mainstream technology out there. Instead, she suggests you work it into a hybrid environment. Focus on non-core processes on the back end (such as mail servers) instead of on the desktop, which won’t be ready for prime time for at least two years, she says. Microsoft is also coming out with an operating system upgrade next year, called Vista, which may take some of the focus off Linux.

But it’s important to grow more comfortable working in a heterogeneous environment, says Krammer. “We encourage SMBs to experiment with it, just so they can get some familiarity and skills with the technology,” Krammer says. Open source is out there, it’s not going away, and it’s another possible option for you.

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