When clients call Secure-24, in Southfield, Mich., seeking advice and technology to meet secure hosting needs, CEO Matthais Horch points out to them three critical factors to consider: functionality, cost and support.

More and more, Horch says, an open source solution offers a competitive combination of those elements for small and mid-size businesses compared to the alternatives.

Following the rapid growth and enterprise success of Linux and other open source applications, many businesses are considering a switch. A survey last year of 500 North American companies by investment banker SG Cowen & Co. found that Linux use was reported in 53 percent of companies. Small businesses and fast-growing companies are seeing Linux as a chance to deploy advanced technologies that they could only access in the past by buying costly proprietary technologies.

But how do you know whether Linux is right for your business?

Low cost attracts interest

The biggest attraction of Linux remains its low cost. In many cases, a company can acquire and run software without incurring any licensing expenses for software and services. A recent study of 200 Linux enterprises by Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) conducted for Levanta, maker of open source management software and appliances, noted, among other findings, “Linux acquisition costs can be almost $60,000 less per server than Windows in software costs alone.”

While acquisition and licensing fees for open source tend to be far lower, some studies by Microsoft and analysts in the past pegged open source with a higher total cost of ownership than Windows, mainly due to higher management costs. But the Enterprise Management Associates study found that reliability was higher for Linux than Windows systems, problems tended to be diagnosed and repaired in 30 minutes and management tended to spend less time managing Linux.

Stability and security advantages

No amount of cost savings can offset troublesome machines prone to breakdown. A Microsoft-sponsored study by Security Innovation, an application security firm that provides risk analysis and mitigation services, a Windows-based solution more reliable than one based on Linux as business needs grew over one year. The study found Linux administrators were about 70 percent slower than Windows counterparts to fulfill business objectives and experienced more system failure and needed more patches than the Windows team.

But the EMA study found different results. It noted that respondents that used Linux-based systems reported 99 percent up time with 17 percent saying they had no downtime at all.

Scott Crenshaw, senior director of product management and marketing at Red Hat, a leading open source software and service provider, says that Linux provides advantages when it comes to security. “We measured the time it took to fix and deliver critical security bugs in the operating system,” he says. “In Windows, people have gotten used to waiting for three, six, nine, 12 months.” But Red Hat delivered fixes within 24 hours 100 percent of the time, he says.

Making the switch

Many small and mid-size businesses simply stay with Windows because they rely on Microsoft Office. They reason that mixing up the computing environment on the backend with Linux while the front office needs Word or Excel will just increase support and integration costs. Crenshaw, however, argues that open source’s time has come on the PC desktop as well.

Open Office is a multi-platform office productivity suite that has been developed through the OpenOffice.org, an open source project. The software includes the key desktop applications, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and drawing program, with a user interface and feature set similar to other office suites. Crenshaw says it has “a very rich set of productivity tool that meet the needs of 90 percent of users.”

Any change to the IT environment can cause major headaches and generate significant costs. But certain environmental events in the business can make managing the switch to open source a little easier. Those include increasing server or database capacity and adding new business services when buying new hardware.

“Any of those events are a good time to trigger a migration decision,” Crenshaw says.

Increasing commitments from large hardware companies such as Dell and IBM, the availability of professional open source support and the growing ranks of qualified open source technical support staff make the option to move to open source easier than ever. 

“The only caveat, my only warning,” says Horch, of Secure-24, “is have some sort of support.”