Is Linux Truly Small Business Ready?

Wednesday Oct 29th 2008 by Matt Hartley
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A look at the various open source applications that a small business needs to operate efficiently.

Nearly everyday we hear about how the modern Linux distributions are not only ready for the home user, they can even meet the growing demands of many small businesses as well. But rather than debating this point, I’ll examine the tools that would potentially mean that more small businesses would feel the confidence to take the open source plunge.

Let's get started with a suite of tools that all small businesses will likely need to have access to: A usable office suite.

Office applications

There is an old saying that goes something like; "Applications make the operating system." Whether you agree or not, the fact is that most businesses feel very strongly that adequate software does matter. And this is certainly true of a modern office suite.

One of the first software suites that a small business looking to switch to Linux finds themselves wrestling with will likely be Open Office, sponsored by Sun Microsystems. The application suite itself is free to use and simple to understand. And with the exception of relying on its own FoSS (Free Open Source Software) friendly file extensions rather than those used by the rest of the world (Microsoft) by default, there is more than enough functionality provided to get the job done for most small businesses.

Open Office version 3.0 is now boasting a number of minor improvements, but nothing that had me too excited. Despite the new release with bundled improvements, the small business owner must learn to contend with a continued lack of…

• A usable database application – the Open Office clone stinks. Slow to load and lacking features found in MS Access, it leaves a number of users wondering how Open Office Base can possibly match up.

• A Personal Information Manager (PIM) anyone? Thankfully we have Evolution and Kontact in lieu of something from Sun, but still, it is pretty ridiculous.

Is all hope lost then? Not at all, what with Google targeting small businesses with their Google Apps efforts. This includes a word processor, spreadsheet app along with Gmail, and Google Calendar to act as a workable PIM. Yes, using Google applications, one could effectively outshine most of the speed shortcomings seen with Open Office.

As for an Open Office Base alternative, it took no time at all to discover that Kexi is a great alternative to what Open Office had to provide.

Neither Kexi or Open Office "Base" is going to likely hit a home run with new Linux users who are used to working with Microsoft based office products. But between the two alternatives listed above, at least there is some choice as to which is the best fit for each individual in question.

In either case, office suite needs are well met in today's modern Linux desktop.

Keeping the books in "check"

Without question, bookkeeping is king for small businesses. One can brag about Linux stability all day, but unless you have a viable alternative to Quickbooks, you might as well forget it.

After considering a number of fairly decent open source options, I finally ended up putting my best considerations with a closed source application based on Java called MoneyDance. Impressive from the start, MoneyDance can sync your transactions with US based banks accounts, print checks and manage your finances. The application also does well with enabling you to make better investment decisions with your current investments. Again, helpful for planning out the future of your business.

Now for the big question: can this replace your existing method of accounting? Unlike other designed for Linux accounting software, this MoneyDance has a real shot. It still presents some level of learning curve, but overall is usable for most people as it provides must-have features.

Workstation peripheral compatibility

One of the biggest issues for the small business usability of desktop Linux is whether a company's existing peripherals are compatible. Even more confusing is how the small business owner must be familiar with where to look for help should the need arise and the peripheral be detected when first plugged in.

Printer support for instance, can generally be found here. Yet at the same time, one must migrate over to the SANE scanner support page to discover if their scanner is supported.

If you think that is confusing, it gets better. HP and Epson generally have the best support available for desktop Linux users, even if said solutions are not "formally supported." Yet based on compatibility lists elsewhere, the user is never made aware of this. (On odd decision, it appears.)

So is it viable for today's small businesses to take on the task of trying to determine whether their existing peripherals happen to be compatible? It’s doable, sure. Is it going to happen? Not without a qualified Linux consultant leading the way, no.

Small business wireless connectivity.

For some small businesses, providing access to wireless connectivity is key in an effort ensure that customers seek out their businesses as an ongoing destination for future visits. For example, if I owned a coffee shop, I might employ a system from Sputnik.com to allow my patrons to connect to their favorite websites or to check their email. The service is cheap, sustainable and has a history of working under a heavy load.

So despite my own frustration with a lack of MAC address filtering to this very day, Sputnik provides a variety of low cost options for rolling your own WiFi access hotspot with relative ease. Assuming the ISP happens to be okay with it, a small business owner can even charge their patrons with optional payment modules from Sputnik.

Viable? Yes and sort of. Setting up a wireless access point for a small business is fairly straight forward should the small business owner happen to be considered a PC power user. Just be prepared to get your hands dirty when it comes to learning to operate the hardware's user interface. Simple to understand for the casual user, it is not.

Daily management of the small business

Cloud computing Web-based tools such as AirSet are fast becoming the new normal for small business management. To-Do Lists, Calendars and even direct messaging can be provided using AirSet's Web services and their Firefox add-on.

AirSet users will find that using the tools provided by the Web application ensures two critical benefits never go overlooked.

• Data loss. Hosting your own calendar, documents, etc. means should your workstation/server go, potentially so does your data.

• Everything is central, regardless of whether employees are working locally or remotely.

AirSet works just great on most modern Linux distributions. Not depending on Internet Explorer, AirSet even goes so far as to provide special functionality with its Firefox add-on.

Another side benefit: if your company bundles AirSet with Google Apps, they can actually forgo worrying about the need for consistent backups. If back-ups are deemed necessary, just use an external hard drive to back-up important documents as the applications are all Web based.

Linux POS systems.

Providing a solid point of sale (POS) system is for many businesses considered to be a backbone tool. Even non-retail offices have the need for POS-type management systems that can keep up with the needs of small businesses.

Because each need for small businesses is so vast in the area of POS systems, I will highlight some of the best I know of.

• Pizza, Pizza! Yes, you might be shocked to discover that many pizza chains use highly configured POS systems running Linux (or Unix in some cases). Known as oneSystem, this POS system vendor recognized the value that the stable Linux installation can provided to their customers. Well supported, highly recommended.

• Bookstores, mini-mart, etc. Assuming you are not after a ton of support or help getting the system setup, Lemon POS might help to make your business transactions a bit sweeter.

• Retail, Medical and Veterinary. If having options pre-installed and supported is important to your business, then TuxSoft POS solutions is where it’s at.

-- VetTux for the Veterinary business. Simple to use, complete package for animal care.

-- TuxShop for retail. Again, very simple, support for barcode scanning while also supporting a cash register. It also ensures that current stock and supplies are on hand.

-- MediTux for medical practice businesses. Reception to consultation is handled here.

-- TuxDiner for restaurants. Orders taken, processed to the kitchen, table management – it handles everything.

Barcode support? This is an issue that is important and must be addressed by many businesses looking into a modern POS system.

In Linux, many barcode readers are actually treated as keyboards. Despite not appearing anything like a PC keyboard visually to us humans, many hand held barcode scanners actually are seen by the Linux operating system as a keyboard (and they work out of the box because of this fact). This said, when purchasing a barcode scanner for Linux based POS systems, it never hurts to ask if they are natively supported, just in case.

Linux POS systems – a workable solution? Absolutely yes. As a matter of fact, you would be surprised how many small businesses in your area may already be using them and are not even aware of it.

Is Desktop Linux ready for small businesses?

Based on everything presented above, is it fair to say that a small business can operate exclusively on a Linux workstation/server setup? The short answer is yes. The longer, more in-depth answer is yes with the help of professionals to assist the small business owner with setup.

To a growing degree, open source/Linux consultants will play a growing role in enabling small businesses to free themselves from the ugly clutches of vendor lock-in and proprietary file formats. Despite my earlier complaints about Open Office not defaulting to the proprietary Microsoft Office file formats, the truth of the matter is that it is healthier to embrace the non-proprietary every chance we can.

To understand why this is, simply ask someone with MS Publisher 2000 installed to go ahead and open up the Publisher file created with the version from 2002. That's right, it will not happen. Hence the importance of not becoming a victim to closed source software.

Yes, there is no question at all that Linux is suitable for thousands of different small businesses out there. The bigger hurdle, however, is locating someone competent enough to enable those small businesses to make the switch once and for all.

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