Friday, October 2, 2009

Running Your Business With Open Source Software

Why do companies use closed source applications that are tremendously more expensive, when they could probably get away with using open source solutions that are noticeably cheaper? That’s a question that’s been heavy on my mind lately.

You see, in my line of work, I see companies that use closed source software for pretty much everything. I don’t always consider that a bad thing, because each business is different and has different needs.

Some businesses are required to run proprietary applications by their suppliers, others are not. For those that are not required to run closed source applications, I personally don’t see the point in choosing to go that route if you don’t have to.

In the case of the companies I have worked with, they really don’t need to run so many proprietary applications, and they are wasting a ton of money each year.

That got me thinking, if it were up to me, what would I do different? What would I recommend to others that run a business and want to save cash? Let’s take a look at some typical money traps businesses fall into, and some really good open source solutions that should be considered.

File Sharing
A great example of a “closed source money trap” is simple file sharing within a network. If you have a server which its only goal in life is to serve files to others, installing Windows Server on that box is one of the biggest money wasters in the industry.

To have Windows power such a thing, you’d need a Windows Server Standard license ($999) plus CALs (Client Access Licenses) starting at $199 for a mere five users. (Source) It’s very easy to spend a few thousand dollars on this alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that using Windows Server doesn’t have any value, my point is to think it through, do you really need such an expensive operating system? For simple file sharing, absolutely not!

Operating System
For some employees, there may be software that requires Windows. Great strides have been made in getting typical programs to work under Linux, and many have alternatives that are just as good.

If you have employees that only use their computer to check email and fill in a quick spreadsheet or two, you’d be wasting money by buying Windows licenses for that user level. An Ubuntu LTS release is a great choice for the corporate desktop, and includes all of the general stuff like email, word processing, web browsing, spreadsheets (and more) out of the box.

That right there saves you from purchasing a Windows license (around $299.95) AND an Office standard license (around $399.95), per seat! (The prices vary depending on the license type and particular version of course, but that is the general idea).

Ask any experienced IT guy (or gal) and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: virtualization saves money. After all, why have ten physical servers in your rack if you can get away with having two servers that can each run five virtualized servers with room for growth?

The hardware costs you’d save would be phenomenal. Best of all, if you ran the virtualized servers with Linux and a Hypervisor, you’d only have to pay hardware costs, as software costs would be thrown out the window.

Linux is absolutely wonderful when it comes to virtualization, with services to choose from like Xen, Qemu, and Virtualbox to name a few.

Some have costs attached and others don’t, but all would be cheaper than buying a whole server for each task, and even more money is saved by not buying a Windows license for each server unless you absolutely have to.

If you did purchase a Windows Server license for each virtual server, you could easily offset the savings that come with virtualization in the first place.

When you are setting up a new PC for an associate, would you really want to spend a couple of hours installing the OS, and then all of the required programs? That’s why we IT people create images, it saves a TON of time. Restore the image onto the machine, and you’re done.

With Windows, setting up computer images is a chore since you have to create one for each model of machine you’re going to deploy (unless you use config manager or a similar solution, which isn’t cheap). All of your typical Linux desktops could be created from a single image regardless of how many types of machines you have.

Unless proprietary drivers are involved, Linux is scalable across machines and will swap around drivers during boot if it needs to.

This saves a great deal of time from your IT staff, allowing them to work on other projects. Imagine, one PC image to rule them all. You could offset any departmental differences with simple shell scripts, rather than having more base images.

For the actual imaging task, Clonezilla is a really good choice. You can use it as a simple Live CD that pulls images from a network share, or you can install it on a centralized server and maximize its use even further.

Even better, it can image Windows machines too, so if you can’t get away from giving Microsoft your money, at least you don’t have to shell out a ton of money for imaging as well. Using Clonezilla instead of solutions like Symantec Ghost or Config Manager would save your business money.

Yes, I have seen businesses buy Microsoft Outlook licenses just for the sole purpose of checking email, even those that are only required to check it a few times per day.

Why use Outlook for the most general of email use, when Thunderbird works just fine? Another benefit of Thunderbird is that it is very platform-independent, meaning that an associate can have Thunderbird on their work PC, and once they got the hang of it, they could put it on their home PC too, and it will work pretty much the same way regardless of the OS.

This is in contrast to Novell’s “Evolution” suite which is pretty much Linux only. Using a free, powerful, and scalable solution such as Thunderbird instead of Outlook will also save your company even more money.

Web Filtering
Keeping associates from visiting web sites that aren’t work related or are against the usage policy can be a very expensive thing to do.

Employees that visit sites that aren’t work related waste productivity and company dollars, but what companies may not realize is that the services they purchase to block such things is ALSO wasting company dollars!

Most companies I have worked with have purchased an expensive box that they have to put in their server room and maintain, that comes with not only an expensive subscription to some sort of service, it also has an annual maintenance contract fee involved too. (Some of them over ten thousand dollars!)

A better solution is to either user OpenDNS (it’s free for businesses, as far as I know) or to throw a Linux firewall on an old server or virtualized device. That would put several thousand dollars back in your available budget at least, and would be one less box to maintain.

Why throw your money away? In the almost decade I’ve been working in the IT field, I’ve seen companies make some really stupid financial decisions when it comes to technology.

Everything I’ve wrote above are things I noticed real companies doing. Buying Windows licenses for associates that don’t do anything Windows-specific, spending money on the Windows Server operating system just to share a measly 5-12GB of files, and buying Outlook licenses for people that probably could do well with Thunderbird or web-mail are just some of the things I’ve seen companies do to flush their money away.

The moral of the story is to think before you act, and buy the things you absolutely need, and to save money where you can. If you can save money within your organization, you can put it in another area, such as purchasing more servers or increasing your allowable bandwidth.

If you require Windows servers and applications, that’s absolutely fine as not all businesses can control what the suppliers require.

However, use free software wherever it may fit in your organization. You’ll put some money back into your IT budget. So why do IT departments use closed source software when they don’t need it? I have no idea.

What are your thoughts on this subject? What would you do differently in your organization if it was up to you? If it already is in your jurisdiction, how are you running your server room? Feel free to leave a comment.

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