If you’re looking for an alternative to Windows Vista and you prefer not to go “back to the future” with XP, you might seriously consider the Linux open-source operating system as an option for your business. The latest distributions are free, easy to install, and highly customizable; they harness your existing hardware without overtaxing it; and they include a wealth of productivity applications and utilities.

Admittedly switching from Windows to Linux will incur some costs in time as employees and support staff adjust to the new operating system’s configuration settings, utilities, and applications. Even so, the savings in future hardware and software upgrades could eventually be huge.

No License, No Fee, No Problem

Though you can purchase boxed commercial versions of Linux that include support, every distribution is also available for free under the terms of the open-source GNU General Public License, or GPL. Once you figure out which distribution you’d like to use (see below), you can simply download, burn, and install it on as many systems as you choose. Your software licensing fee is zero, compared with the $300 per seat price tag for the full version of Windows Vista Business Edition. And, another bonus, Linux lacks Microsoft’s intrusive activation requirements.

Besides working with thousands of other free applications, most Linux distributions come with a copy of OpenOffice.org. Though it is not a feature-for-feature substitute for Microsoft Office, it does the job, and for $500 less per workstation than Office Professional 2007. OpenOffice.org lacks an equivalent to Microsoft Outlook, but just about every Linux distribution includes Novell’s free Evolution personal information manager.

A few key Windows-based applications such as AutoCAD, lack Linux replacements, but for many workplaces the missing functionality hardly merits spending $800 more for Windows and Office. Many Windows applications will run at native speed under Linux via the Wine utility included with most distributions. For those apps that don’t work with Wine, two more options exist: You can install a copy of Windows using one of the available free virtualization utilities, such as KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine, built into the Linux kernel) or VMWare Server, or you can install Linux to dual-boot with Windows.

For most distributions, the same disc will contain server applications, the MySQL database engine, virtualization software, and support for leading commercial databases and CRM applications. The Samba networking software emulates Windows Server’s networking features admirably, and for free, versus Windows Server 2008’s starting price of $999. You can even replace your costly Exchange server installation with the free, open-source Zimbra Collaboration Suite.

Whether you will be using desktop or server versions of Linux, the operating system is famous for one other important feature that Microsoft is still gradually adding to Windows: security. Linux is not somehow magically immune to viruses, worms, and other Internet-based attacks, but the vast majority threats target Windows and Windows apps. Largely by design, Linux is simply not subject to most of the Net-based malware that threatens PCs.

Install Options, Support

The two most popular Linux window managers — the software that controls the look and behavior of the X Window graphical user interface — are Gnome and KDE. Most distributions default to installing one or the other–Ubuntu opts for the former, for example, and OpenSuSE, the latter. However, you could install both window managers on your system, and choose which to use when you log in. Also, several window managers, notably Xfce and Blackbox, require less memory and graphics processing than Gnome and KDE, making them a good choice for older hardware.

Finally, lightweight Linux distributions, such as Puppy Linux, prune the OS down to its elements, breathing life into even the most ancient PC.

Linux distributions also differ in how well they support your particular hardware, especially wireless networking devices and display adapters. Perhaps the easiest way to directly assess this support on your particular hardware without having to actually install Linux is to download, burn, and boot a live-CD distro. Ubuntu, OpenSuSE, Gentoo, and literally hundreds of other Linux distributions come in live-CD versions.

Get Help, If You Need It

Operating system support is never cheap, but Linus report is relatively inexpensive. The $60 packaged version of Novell’s community-supported OpenSuSE 11.0 comes with 90 days of installation support. For long-term support, choose SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (currently in version 10) for $50 per year, or go with Ubuntu and buy a support contract from maker Canonical starting at $250 per year. (Ubuntu users, though, joke that simply googling for technical support usually results in the exact answer you’re looking for on Canonical’s forums.)

While Linux isn’t an alien life form, it is different from Windows, and making the transition to it will take some time and money. But never having to pay Microsoft for Windows and Office licenses again is a gift that keeps on giving. More important, you’ll be free to run your choice of desktop and server software, on hardware you can afford.

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