Migrating a Small Business To Linux

Tuesday Sep 7th 2010 by Matt Hartley
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Whether migrating to Linux is advisable depends on a given business’s priorities.

In a tight economy, it's more important than ever to make sure every dollar spent is providing maximum return. And for a growing number of small businesses, this means reexamining plans for upgrading existing servers and workstations.

For many small businesses, this translates into more of the same. Renewing expensive licenses, buying newer computer towers and of course, in some instances, installing updates to legacy Windows software.

Cost in a value-based economy

What is the value proposition in getting a small business to make the switch to Linux?

Not able to offer a clear answer?

Then consider this as one possibility – control. Offering small businesses control over their own technology is something that most managers are unaware is even needed. After all, something breaks, they call whomever handles repairs, the problem is fixed.

And of course, the attached invoice for that effort is then paid. But what if there was an easier way? What if that same business owner who just paid the rather expensive invoice could find a way to eliminate many of these repair problems from occurring in the first place? Bingo -- now you have your value proposition.

In a really lousy economy, the IT firm that can promise that a small business will be free of malware and Windows viruses, without needing to relicense anti-malware measures every year, is going to be very attractive to a cost cutting small business. Being able to deliver value for a larger one-time cost, and then support that value at a lesser cost over time, would indeed be highly attractive to small business owners everywhere.

Yet despite this promised value, delivering on such claims means overcoming specific hurdles that might be easier to overlook when working with a computer hobbyist. After all, today's small businesses need their technology to work as expected, without excuses and without any show-stopping issues.

Software subtleties

A few years back, I helped a small bookstore switch over to Linux. Something I ran into during the course of this small migration effort was the concern over losing access to those famed proprietary applications such as Microsoft Office, Quicken and believe it or not, Photoshop.

In each case here, there are viable software alternatives, depending on the needs of the small business. However, even putting aside the learning curve, people prefer what is familiar to them.

In my case, I was lucky enough to avoid these issues through some creative retooling, but others may not be so lucky. What can these individuals do? Look at the situation as follows, small business owners need their computers to perform specific tasks. If what the Linux/open source world is offering simply won't cut it for their needs, then clearly alternatives must be sought out.

Put simply, if there are multiple workstations in use, make as many of them as possible run Linux so the business can enjoy the benefits of the platform. If there must be one workstation using Windows for some reason, so be it. The fact that there is now a mixed environment is still more valuable than one without Linux being used at all.

In my experience, asking small businesses to use "virtual machine solutions" with Windows, which means accessing legacy Windows software from inside this environment, is met with a resounding "no." For these individuals, either it runs well out of the box or not at all. This is something that most people need to realize early on if they plan on helping migrate a small business over to a desktop Linux solution.

This is not to say that a server solution couldn't be implemented, then move toward the thin client route. But we need to remember the core point of this article – keeping things cheap and affordable.

Perplexing peripherals

Assuming a happy medium can be reached on the software front, another unavoidable challenge that must be met head on is ensuring that all peripherals used with any given small business are Linux friendly.

There’s both good news and bad news on this front. The good news is that most printers and scanners work out of the box on computers loaded with today's modern Linux distributions. The bad news is that there will be some specialized devices that may in fact not be supported without some extra work.

Assuming there is a Linux professional helping to get everything working for the business owner, this may not be an insurmountable problem. On the other hand, if the switch to Linux is being accomplished by a non-tech savvy business owner, it may lead to some tough platform choices for those involved.

Most of the time one can deal with these problems by leaving one existing workstation installed with Windows, to handle legacy peripheral problems such as this. This solution is also helpful for future peripheral purchases whose compatibility is not yet known.

As stated previously, though, thanks to CUPS and SANE, these cases are far and few between. It's only a problem with select "made for the enterprise world" type devices such as business card scanners, etc.

Is making the switch really worth it?

The bottom line isn't always as simple as dollars and cents. Sometimes, it comes down to individuals deciding whether or not switching over to Linux is really worth it, despite any perceived benefits of cost cutting.

My opinion on the matter is this: With a professional helping with the migration, moving most of a small business over to Linux workstations/local servers and other devices is not out of the question at all. The key component is finding a skilled individual to facilitate the migration effort. This, not the software or peripherals, will dictate whether a given Linux migration will fail or succeed.

As to the perceived "value" of any Linux migration for a small business, it comes down to priorities for those involved. If a small business is content with relying on proprietary software for their day-to-day needs, realizing that in many cases a missing license key means more money to be spent down the line, more power to them.

If, however, that same small business decides they're tired of spending money on software that could be replaced by open source alternatives running on an open source operating system like Linux, then investing in a platform switch clearly is the way to go.

I believe that the key to successfully appealing to small business owners and getting them to see the benefits in making the platform switch comes down to one very important thing: value to the business.

How this is done really depends on who handles the migration for the business owner. But if a clear, outlined value can be demonstrated without ignoring possible challenges in making a switch to Linux, then no question remains that migrating more small businesses to open source freedom is completely doable.

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