Six Reasons Why Linux Is Right for Small Business

Friday Oct 3rd 2008 by Aaron Weiss

We compare the top Linux options for small businesses — the majority involve one of these six popular open source platforms.

It seems that every year is supposed to be "the year" for Linux, but nobody ever manages to define what "the year" really means. You can find statistics on Linux adoption from a variety of research firms but all seem skewed to represent whatever agenda that firm is pushing-whether that is Linux adoption rising, falling, or stagnating.

There is no centralized way of counting Linux adoption because so many stories are anecdotal and there are so many channels through which Linux can be taken up. Rather than rely on unreliable statistics to make the point that Linux for small businesses in 2008 is a more viable option than ever, we simply need to look at the continued maturation of SMB-friendly Linux offerings.

Clearing the Fog

One of the murkiest challenges that a small business faces when even considering a Linux-based software environment is seeing through the dense range of distributions that make up the Linux ecosystem. Unlike Windows, which is of course centrally distributed by one vendor in a limited number of versions, there are many dozens of Linux-based operating systems. Most Linux distributions are functionally similar in many ways, but they do differ enough in both interface and included components that organizations investing time, money — or both — need to consider their choice. Beyond functionality, Linux distributions may also differ in available support channels and/or licensing cost.

Yes, cost. Although there is a notion that "Linux" equates to "free" this is not always the case. Many Linux distributions are indeed free, but commercial solutions such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell SUSE come with a price tag. For that investment, though, you typically receive additional software with specialized functionality as well as installation and ongoing support that you might otherwise need to contract from a third-party. Shortly, we'll look at these options in more detail.

Adding to the potentially confusing cost issue is this scenario: many major Linux distributions are available in both a fee-based commercial and a free "community" or "open" version. Generally speaking, the commercial version of a Linux distribution will include the most stable (but not necessarily newest) software packages, may include extra open source or proprietary software, and will include a support contract.

Community distributions, which can be downloaded for free, offer much of the same functionality, but may include newer and less well tested versions of software packages, lack proprietary or closed source enhancements for enterprise or multimedia, and support amounts to "you're on your own." Or, if not on your own, reliant upon volunteer support from the Linux community.

Desktop and Server

When people speak of Linux they often make a distinction between desktop and server deployments. Indeed, Linux has long been a mature presence on servers, first on the Internet, and in recent years powering corporate and intranet environments. It has taken longer for Linux to mature on the desktop, where most users have become accustomed to the Windows experience. Another factor is that Linux has been dogged by a reputation for an unfriendly interface.

The truth is, Linux on the desktop is now mature, and for most users, any of the Linux distributions we look at for small businesses would require very little adaptation. Plus, desktop Linux users are protected from the malware threats that proliferate on Windows machines. The main limitation that remains for Linux on the desktop is application availability. For a small business that relies on particular applications that are available only for Windows-such as Quicken or Outlook-it may be more difficult to justify a Linux-based desktop.

Some commercial Linux distributions are licensed in either server or desktop versions. Typically, you can use a server version as a desktop, although it may not include as many client applications, and the vendor may not support client applications you add. Likewise, many desktop distributions also include server software, particularly for common server functions such as file sharing, databases, and Web applications. In other words, the boundaries between server and desktop Linux can be blurry, and may be defined more by licensing fees and support terms than significant technical differences.

The Linux Six: Top Solutions for Small Business

When you boil down the myriad choices in Linux land, six distributions stand out as the most attractive for the small business whether you are looking at desktop or server solutions.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5
Despite having "enterprise" in its name, RHEL is popular with many small- and mid-sized businesses, as well. Red Hat is perhaps the most established name among commercial Linux vendors, having been founded in 1995.

For server use, RHEL supports a wide range of processing platforms from single CPU machines to SMP and clustered configurations. Network storage is available with support for protocols like Autofs, FS-Cache and iSCSI. And Microsoft integration is enhanced with ActiveDirectory support and Microsoft file and printer sharing.

In a desktop environment, RHEL uses Gnome, an interface that is easy to learn for both Windows and Mac users. RHEL 5's most significant new feature is its integration with Xen virtualization, meaning that it includes out-of-the-box support for running virtualized OS environments, which may include additional or earlier Red Hat releases, other Linux distributions, or even Windows.

Because the components in this commercial Linux distribution are well-tested, RHEL is certified for 600 hardware configurations, and can run over 1000 certified applications. A Basic license costs $349 per year and includes Web-based support, while a $799 Standard license buys 12x5 phone support.

Fedora 9
In addition to their Enterprise Linux release, Red Hat also sponsors Fedora, the community edition oriented toward developers and enthusiasts. Fedora contains many of the same components as RHEL 5, but you can download and install it for free — no licenses to buy.

Unlike RHEL, Fedora is developed on a more rapid timeline — six-month releases versus eighteen-month releases for RHEL. This means that the software versions of Fedora components have had less time to be tested. The idea is that Fedora is a test bed for software that may eventually find its way into RHEL, should it prove useful and stable enough. Likewise, Red Hat provides no formal support for Fedora, although there are thriving Web communities you can use as a resource.

For a particular small business, there is not necessarily one right choice between RHEL and Fedora. As a general guide, a very small business with technical aptitude but a limited budget might be drawn toward Fedora, while a larger small business with a more complex operation could benefit from the proven stability and support behind RHEL.

Novell SUSE Linux 10
Red Hat's biggest competitor is Novell SUSE, a commercial/community Linux distribution that is developed according to the same model as RHEL/Fedora. Also like RHEL, SUSE is divided into a server and a desktop product, known as SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) and SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop). Again, the server product does include a desktop environment and can be used that way, although it includes fewer client applications than the full-blown SLED.

For most practical purposes, SLES and RHEL provide very similar feature sets. SLES includes Novell's AppArmor security (application-specific permissions) and their highly praised YaST tool, a kind of all-in-one system control panel and installed software manager. Like RHEL, SLES includes integrated virtualization using Xen. On the desktop, SLED includes both Gnome and KDE interfaces. While Gnome is typically considered more accessible for the average user or Windows refugee, KDE is considered by many to be a more powerful desktop and is often preferred by enthusiasts.

To drive home the point of how closely matched these two Linux giants are, the entry-level licenses for SUSE are priced at $349/year and $799/year — exactly the same as RHEL, with equivalent support terms.

OpenSUSE 11
Whereas RHEL has its free Fedora counterpart, SUSE has OpenSUSE. The model here is the same — OpenSUSE is a Novell-sponsored community distribution. Like Fedora, it is released on a much faster cycle than its commercial counterpart, and therefore contains "bleeding edge" software that provides the latest features at the possible cost of less testing for stability and compatibility.

For example, SLED includes KDE version 3.3, an older but mature desktop. OpenSUSE includes KDE 4, a major upgrade with a much "sexier" desktop environment. But KDE 4 is still under active development and, while it will "mostly" work, issues may arise and there is no formal support to rely on.

CentOS 5
In the remix culture of Linux, there is another twist on the commercial vs. community paradigm: the "rebuild." In this case, a third-party collects the open source software that makes up a more well-known Linux distribution, like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and re-packages it into a separate distribution.

Put another way, a rebuild is often like a clone, and in the open source software world is perfectly legal. CentOS ("Community ENTerprise Operating System") is just such a rebuild, a re-packaging of RHEL 5. Of course, while Red Hat provides formal support through license fees for RHEL 5, no such support is offered for CentOS.

In that case, how is CentOS different from Fedora? Because CentOS does not contain the "bleeding edge" components of Fedora, but the stable and well-tested components in RHEL 5. If you're new to open source, all this might sound a little shady, but in fact CentOS is one of the more popular Linux distributions. For the small business, CentOS offers a budget-conscious alternative to the stability risks of Fedora without paying for the formal support of RHEL 5.

Ubuntu 8.04
Some may raise an eyebrow at seeing Ubuntu listed among business-oriented Linux platforms. By its own design, Ubuntu &# 151a South African concept for "being human" — has been developed as an accessible, end-user-friendly Linux known for being warm and fuzzy.

Indeed, Ubuntu has developed a reputation not unlike the Mac. It is adored by desktop users, but without a strong presence in server racks. The reality, however, is somewhat different. Ubuntu (and Macs) do have a place on the server, although not so often seen in large scale enterprise back-ends.

For the small business, the Ubuntu Linux offers several attractive benefits. One, it is free to download and use in any scenario you want. You can optionally pay for a support subscription ($250 desktop/$750 server, annually). Unlike Red Hat and SUSE, foregoing paid support does not mean having to use a separate community edition with different software versions. With Ubuntu, you are always using the vendor-sponsored-and-tested platform.

Because Ubuntu provides a very strong desktop experience with support for a wide range of consumer hardware, it is easy to deploy in a variety of environments. At the same time, many small businesses will be adequately served by Ubuntu's typical range of server software, from Windows-compatible file and print sharing to Web serving and database support. More ambitious server packages can be installed in Ubuntu, although it may take a little more work on your end compared to turnkey enterprise distributions.

Finally, Ubuntu is particularly well-supported by its user community. Even without paid support, answers to almost every conceivable issue are available at Ubuntu Web forums, which are often oriented toward the non-expert Linux user.

In short, would Ubuntu Linux be the top choice for an enterprise running a 2,000 CPU production backend? Probably not. But for a small business with modest needs, Ubuntu can be a free, friendly, minimum-fuss solution.

Plenty of Fish in the Sea

These six Linux distributions are just the tip of the iceberg because Linux is a deep and vast ocean. In practice, though, the majority of Linux deployments, particularly in business environments, involve one of these six platforms because they address the major mix of needs between form, function and pricing. Linux is all about choice, which also means you have the choice whether to explore Linux distributions in more depth — or not.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is:

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