The release of the latest Ubuntu Version has been seen by a number of commentators as the most end-user friendly yet and signals another milestone in the readiness of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for more widespread (and business) use.
As a long-term user of a number of different Operating Systems and as SME Owner for the last 15 years I have overseen the gradual replacement of a number of proprietary software solutions with FOSS Alternatives. With the beginning of the new financial year however, we are planning to go another step further and are starting to change our default Operating System to Ubuntu (from MS Windows).
It is worth pointing out that I don’t have an issue with paying for software (after all we are partly in the software development business). We also happily pay quite a number of SaaS suppliers for their services (see list below) and support. My main issue is why I should pay license fees for standard software (i.e. Office Productivity Tools) when there is so many excellent community developed products out there that do the same (in some instances better, in some instances just adequate) job ? It is hard enough running a small business in the current climate.
One major benefit of changing over to a web-based (FOSS) approach to our back-end systems has been the ability to operate from anywhere. This has dramatically increased productivity for myself as well as staff being able to work from home more often. This is mainly due to changing back-end systems to browser based software, but also due to the fact that you can access the web-based software also on personal devices (such as phones).
Since licensing fees are only one part of the cost of running software it has to be said that support for users in the early days is certainly higher than just keeping the ‘stuff they know’ and have been taught at University / TAFE / Schools. Different tools will always require some learning curve to get familiar with the new environment. However in the long run we have not seen a significant difference to the previous scenario.
For Software development reasons we still have to maintain a license for some of these systems for testing purposes, however it has been quite a while since we have actually done so for actual production purposes.
- No license and reoccurring upgrade fees (other than service fees)
- Community support
- Drivers (some drivers for Graphics Cards can still be a bit of a challenge)
- Accessories / devices (if you run a lot of (b)leading edge devices such as USB accessoroes, it can be a challenge to get appropriate Linux support)
It generally pays to check user forums (for Ubuntu there is a list of certified hardware) before buying accessories. However most common hardware (such as major phones and personal audio devices) have good support.
Show-stoppers / Challenges
In previous attempts when contemplating the phasing out of Windows as the Standard Operating Environment in our business we were faced with some show-stoppers such as our Accounting Package that was not available at all in a non-Windows environment. However we have since migrated all of our mission-critical applications into web-based & off-site hosted environments. With these changes the need for client-based software has rapidly diminished and the focus has shifted to web-browser support of critical systems.
Some challenges remain with new staff needing to be trained and sometimes convinced that there is other things out there than the packages they are familiar with. I have been advocating for changes in our Schools to teach the concepts of software rather than certain tools – ie. teach the concept of Word Processing rather than Microsoft Word. But I am realistic that these changes will not be implemented soon if at all.
One area we have not been able to change is Graphic Design. Whilst I am personally not convinced that GIMP/Inkscape are not able to replace the Photoshop/Illustrator combo I do not have the personal knowledge in that field and have hence given up trying to change this. Life is too short to be wasted listening to Graphic Designers whining to you daily that they need Adobe for XYZ. ;-)
I very often hear the following arguments:
“If you use this FOSS stuff that is owned by nobody you will not be supported”
One of the longest standing arguments and the easiest to answer. Most FOSS operating systems now have a number of commercial operations supporting.
As for community support there is an extremely active community around Ubuntu with a local Australian Team and literally thousands of community volunteers world-wide. And for those less comfortable relying on community support there are a growing number of commercial operations willing to support Open Source OS’s.
“If everybody can see the source code – isn’t that insecure ?”
Again one of the oldest FUD arguments. There is a detailed Wikipedia entry that explains the concept of Open Source Security and why most independent experts will assert the exact opposite.
“Proprietary OS’s are streamlined and much more efficient”
We found this one to be correct in some areas and completely false in others. To the contrary a number of tasks (such as adding network printers or network connections) are much more efficient on Ubuntu. Whilst the User Interfaces on proprietary systems are much more polished (eye-candy) they are not necessarily contributing much to an effective work practice. And when it comes to setting up new equipment there is no comparison whatsoever. It generally takes up to an hour to have a developer system configured with Software installs and other config tasks thanks largely to Linux package management tools (such as apt-get) which can be completely automated with a few lines of script. A similar developer system on Windows can take hours of idle install time and reboots galore.
“You will not save any money”
This point is the least exact and hardest to answer as it will largely depend on individual circumstances, in-house IT knowledge and support. For our part we have certainly saved cost in software licensing. However we generally have invested this in either being able to afford additional IT work done (custom workflows) or being able to invest in systems that would have been outside of budget.
As a practical exercise I thought I would share our Standard Operating Environment (SOE). Whilst not all of the software listed is Open Source (as the title obviously suggests) a substantial majority is.
- Ubuntu 10.04 / 11.04 – default – http://ubuntu.com/
- Fedora 14/15 (mainly for our Sysadmin purposes as most of our Servers run on RHEL / CentOS)
- Windows (XP & W7) for hardware that can not be utilised on Ubuntu
- (OSX (single machine for testing & iOS compilation purposes))
- Mozilla Firefox (preferred) – http://mozilla.org/firefox/
- Google Chrome (preferred) – http://www.google.com/chrome
- Microsoft Internet Explorer (testing only via Virtual Machine) http://microsoft.com/ie
- Apple Safari (testing only) – http://www.apple.com/safari/
Office / Productivity
- GoogleApps (with local backups)
- Webmail (nobody actually uses a desktop mail client these days)
- Webcalendar (shared calendars & resources)
- Open / Libre Office – http://www.libreoffice.org/
- Filezilla (http://filezilla-project.org/) FTP Client
- 7-Zip (http://www.7-zip.org/) File Compression
- KeePass (http://keepass.info/) – Password Manager
- PWGen (http://pwgen-win.sourceforge.net/) Password Generator
- SciTE / Notedpad++ (a lot of our tech staff prefer text editors for smaller projects) – http://www.scintilla.org/SciTE.html / http://notepad-plus-plus.org/
- Eclipse (http://eclipse.org)
- Subversion – http://subversion.apache.org/
- Git – http://git-scm.com/
Backend Business Systems
- Zendesk Helpdesk Management(we have tried a number of self-hosted FOSS alternatives over the years, but opted for a fully supported SaaS solution) – http://zendesk.com/
- SAASU Finance – http://saasu.com/ (and I was glad to say good bye to MYOB)
- SugarCRM – http://www.sugarforge.org/
- Home-grown admin database system based on MySQL/PHP
- PuttySSH – http://www.putty.org/
- Virtualbox – http://www.virtualbox.org/
- Nagios System Monitoring – http://www.nagios.org/