When Does Open Source Make Sense?

    Two weeks ago, my quiet Sunday afternoon was interrupted by a knock on the back door; my neighbor from across the street needed some computer help. While I normally shy away from helping friends and family with computer issues due to the “ownership of all future problems” factor, I decided to take a quick look.  (I should note that my neighbor owns a heating and cooling company, so he's a good guy to have owe me a favor in return).

    It seems that he had purchased a brand new PC a week ago and decided that he did not want Windows Vista anymore, so he had his cousin (who is a technician at a local computer repair shop) load a pirated copy of XP Pro. The problem they were having was that the PC would not boot to the XP CD. After spending several hours working on this, his cousin gave up. My neighbor's wife suggested he ask me for some help.

    A quick “CD E:” followed by “DIR” revealed a blank CD. Duh! (I should have gotten the name of the PC shop where his cousin works.) “So, what do we do now?” he asks. Well, I am certainly not going to provide a copy of XP for him to use with his pirated key, and while he does have a valid XP Home upgrade key, I am not going to load his pirated copy of 98 just so he can upgrade. This left one choice: Linux.

    We booted up to a live Mepis CD and verified that his digital cameras, printer, and all peripherals worked properly. Within 10 minutes of clicking the “install to hard drive” icon on the Mepis desktop, we were booted into the freshly installed Linux OS. Both my neighbor and his “computer tech” cousin were impressed by the ease of installation, amount of available software, and how easy it was to figure out how to move around in the OS. Two weeks have gone by now and the only time my neighbor has contacted me regarding the computer was to drop off a case of beer in appreciation and tell me how much he likes his new operating system.
    A small business finally outgrows the residential grade router they were using as a firewall and is looking for an upgrade to something more robust. They receive several quotes for Sonicwall, Pix, Fortigate, etc., but all of these quotes exceed the available budget.  A good time for open source? You betcha! An IPCop firewall would provide excellent perimeter protection, a VPN solution, and web content filtering all in one box. “How can I sell IPCop, it's open source?” you may ask. Well, the answer to that particular question is that you don't sell IPCop, you sell a firewall and support for that firewall.

   The above situations are what I consider to be good examples of the “right” time for open source. My neighbor needed a new PC, purchased one with Vista preloaded and decided he did not care for the new operating system at all. In addition, there were compatibility issues with his printer and the older of his two digital cameras. Linux offered him a “new” operating system without the learning curve he was experiencing with Vista, worked with all of his peripherals, and was free. The small office needed to upgrade their firewall without spending a large amount of money on hardware and licensing. The IPCop provides a very nice solution with an easy to use web interface that the “IT Person” (read: office manager) can use effectively.

    There are other times when a switch to open source makes sense: a client that needs a mail server but can't justify the expense of Exchange can use ZimbraEbox is a great replacement for SBS.  Nagios is a nice option to What's Up Gold or HP Openview. Need an enterprise class router but can't justify Cisco gear? Take a look at Vyatta .

    Do you have users that need nothing more than email, a word processor, and a web browser? Switch them to Linux. Thunderbird, Open Office, and Firefox look and work the same on Linux as they do in Windows. As an added bonus that user's PC is not going to be susceptible to viruses, spyware, and other malware that will eventually affect performance and even become a risk to their personal information.

    The list of open source alternatives to commercial products is growing everyday. A majority of these alternative applications do not require any special knowledge of Linux at all; they are easy to install, utilize web based administration, and have excellent support through the community. Take the time and familiarize yourself with some of the open source applications that are available. Download a few and play around with them. Install Linux on a spare computer and get familiar with it. Thinking “outside of the box” and having something to offer to your customers that all the “other guys” don't is what will set you apart from the competiton.

    As always, if you have any questions, comments, problems, or want to list me as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, please feel free to contact me at thughes@fwpm.com .

Copyright 2008 Todd Hughes.