Linux for SMEs: are they ready?

Dirk Kissinger, Red Hat EMEA and Peter Dawes-Huish, LinuxIT Europe

Dirk Kissinger, senior marketing manager of Red Hat EMEA, and Peter Dawes-Huish, CEO of LinuxIT Europe, discuss if SMEs are ready to migrate to Linux and how small companies can benefit from going down the open source route.

Linux continues to make impressive advances into IT infrastructure, with IDC reporting 14 consecutive quarters of double-digit growth in Linux server shipments through the third quarter of last year. Not to mention the equally impressive penetration of Linux in a wide range of client devices, from routers to firewalls, from printers to imaging devices and from thin clients to smart mobile phones... this list could carry on.

Linux has proved itself within the biggest enterprises; Amazon.com, Credit Suisse First Boston, DreamWorks, Reuters, Lehman Brothers to name but a few have all migrated to Linux, relying on it to power their most mission-critical applications. For its performance it has attracted some of the largest financial institutions. For its security it has been adopted by governments around the globe.

But what about small and medium-size businesses who may not have a large IT team to support such migrations? Are SMEs ready to go down the open source route? What can they use Linux for? Do they necessarily have to rely on that IT team support?

Low cost - but a lot more than that

An obvious benefit for migration for every company, SMEs included, is the low cost of Linux. For the server market Linux offers a low entrance cost. The very nature of the open source model is such that the software such as the operating system is free, with companies then able to subscribe to support and software updates and patches.

Following the open source path can not only create real savings on both hardware and software costs but also spells the end of vendor lock-in, enabling companies to realize further savings through the freedom to choose their IT partners and not be tied into the costly software upgrade cycles of proprietary software vendors.

Optional automated Linux provisioning or management eases the management of Linux systems, further keeping down cost through freeing up resources for other more strategic tasks that enables business to innovate more. Linux lets system administrators remove services that aren’t needed, eliminating unproductive loads on the hardware and reducing the administrative overhead for corporate system administrators.

Secure

Security is another important driving force. The availability of the source code for Linux makes a better alternative for creating secure systems. There is increased scrutiny of code to spot vulnerabilities before they can be used by viruses or worms, reducing the risk of infection and the related costs.

Not only are the Linux vendors constantly working to find potential issues in the software, but thousands of developers around the world are also examining the code, looking for ways to improve it. And, because all implementations of Linux - from servers to desktops to embedded - use the same open source IP stacks, Ipchains firewalls, SSH/SSL, security modules and other mechanisms, administrators can reuse hard-won expertise in one environment across their entire infrastructure.

Open and flexible

Linux allows users to tune the kernel on each system or virtual machine appropriately for the services it will provide. This improves performance, security and reliability, reducing the ongoing system administration needed. While Windows can be fast, its kernel must be large to provide the variety of services users may want to employ.

Linux lets system administrators remove services that aren't needed, eliminating unproductive loads on the hardware. Linux providers have also gone to great lengths to provide browser-based administration of major configuration and administrative selections.

Linux in the SME IT infrastructure

For SMEs, open source can be an attractive option at the infrastructure level for a multitude of reasons. The reality is that most of a business's IT tasks happen in the background without the end-user realizing it but relying on it for tasks like email, printing and accessing the servers for data.

This commodity part of the computing environment generally consists of infrastructure components such as operating systems, databases, email and directory services. With Linux proven as a stable, robust and reliable operating system, running the file, print or web servers on Linux machines lets SMEs consolidate server workloads and reduce the cost of maintaining and administering those systems.

Linux for file servers?

Linux gives you a wider choice of file systems and volume managers. Like Samba, running on Linux is a popular file-serving solution that includes easyto-use features that let users set up multiple servers accessing a single file system and replicate a file system to two physically distant servers, while automatically keeping them in sync. While this is possible on Windows or Solaris it is considerably more expensive than the comparable Linux solutions.

Linux for print servers?

Using a print server, rather than the print queue mechanism available as part of most operating systems, lets users submit print requests to an external queue. Fulfilment doesn’t require the user to keep their computer powered on and connected.

Linux for web servers?

For companies already running Linux workstations, network security or file, print or other application servers, many system administrators find Linux-based web servers are a natural progression. Most commercial Linux operating systems include the Apache HTTP Server (httpd) software.

Apache has been the most popular web server package on the internet for over a decade. More than 70 per cent of all websites on the internet use Apache. Apache is a full http/https web server, ideal for programmers using Perl, PHP or CGI technologies. Apache httpd on Linux has a large number of free and commercial plug-ins, including the SQUID web proxy cache.

Are applications ready?

An obvious question when considering a migration to Linux is whether the line of business applications that a company has been using are available on Linux or if there are any alternatives or any legacy applications that need to be integrated with the open source software.

In most cases they will be. There's a range of over 2,000 applications from vendors from across the entire range of enterprise software that are certified on a commercialized Linux distribution. Most applications that run on UNIX are already available for Linux.

Do you need to be a 'techie' to use Linux?

Linux has had a reputation for being only for 'techies' or having the need for Linux expertise to be able to configure and set up Linux systems. This probably was valid previously with early concerns that it can be more difficult to configure open source systems but this is changing.

However open source vendors have recognised the need for more user-friendly information for installation and system management, and they have invested heavily in how-to guides to make it easier for people from a non-IT background.

But if SMEs don't want to deal with open source directly, or they feel they don't have the resources inhouse, the best solution is to rely on third parties such as the specialist partners of the main Linux vendors who offer complete open source solutions packaged for the business and technology needs of these smaller organisations.

These partners also provide Linux training and support and have the expertise and unrivalled services, delivered by the best consulting, integration and support specialists that help to lower costs and improve productivity for SME businesses.

In fact not only is Linux easier to use than traditional UNIX, it is also easier to use Linux properly than to use Windows properly when it comes to complex infrastructures. Because Linux is a different paradigm compared to Windows when it comes to software development, so it is also a different paradigm with regards to software implementation and support.

Companies find its co-operative support model useful as it lets them collaborate and be part of the development cycle of the software.

Linux on the desktop

Most of the discussion has been around the server so far and it's probably a fair observation that most traction open source companies have, to date, been from UNIX-to-Linux migrations. However, as companies such as Baylis Logistics have found, the merits of an open source alternative are also now beginning to be realized on the desktop.

While the PC has undoubtedly transformed the role IT plays in businesses of every size, as the network has grown and the number of applications used has multiplied, so the complexity and cost of managing the PC infrastructure has spiralled.

Consequently the growth of software-as-a-service and of centrally hosted server-based applications has increased as IT administrators look for more effective and efficient ways of maintaining the network of PCs with the most up-to-date security patches and bug fixes.

Thin client computing, where the network of 'dumb' terminals connect direct to the applications running on a central server, is an ideal alternative to a PC-based solution for a company supporting a large number of desktop machines and where users have the need for specialist applications.

A thin client architecture running Linux has several advantages over a traditional PC-based network:

  • much lower hardware and software costs;
  • increased software security - much more resistant to viruses and malware;
  • increased data security - all data is stored centrally;
  • reduced maintenance - all updates can be done centrally on the server;
  • greater flexibility - user maintains same experience wherever they log-on.

Conclusion

Building on its rapid success with some of the world's largest and computing-intensive companies, Linux and open source software has reached a level of maturity where it is now able to deliver real cost and performance benefits to businesses of any size.

The ease of management and proven security advantages of Linux, coupled with the excellent customer and technology support provided by Linux vendors and partners, means Linux is undoubtedly SME-ready.

For further information about Linux for SMEs please visit www.linuxit.com