Despite its technical mystique, open source software holds a lot of appeal for small and medium-sized businesses. And no wonder: It’s free.

Free as in no off-the-shelf, licensing, or upgrade fees having to be paid to a software maker. And although open source code is by nature developed by a collaborative community of programmers, experts say it’s becoming more mainstream and that non-technical end users can increasingly take advantage of open source software. 

“The open source folks are coming from a small business background -- they wrote this software for themselves and they have an affinity for the small and mid-size users,” says Bruce Perens, a long-time open source evangelist and vice president at Source Labs, a Seattle-based company that offers support for open source deployments. “When I wrote my open source software, I was a one-person consulting business and the needs of small businesses were paramount to me.”

Still, many businesses have concerns about using open source, such as worrying about whether or not it comes with tech support, how to deploy it, or how to even start researching the possibilities. So how can small and medium-sized businesses evaluate whether open source software is right for them? Experts offer this advice:

Step 1: Evaluate your business needs

Whether you need a simple word processing program or a customer relationship management (CRM) application, small businesses need to approach evaluating open source software solutions the same they would commercial software, says Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica, a San Carlos, Calif. system-integration company, and the author of Succeeding with Open Source.

“The thing that makes sense is to look at their needs and what functionality they are looking for -- then they can see whether open source fits their needs,” Golden says. “I would ask are there things you need to do for your business or would like to do but feel you can’t do because of the cost of software? In those cases it would make sense to look for open source alternatives. In almost every category of software there are open source packages that are very capable.”

Step 2: Explore open source options

Companies in the business of developing Web applications or software are probably already dabbling in open source -- or even developing it. But you don’t have to be a high-tech firm to delve into open source.

For instance, Perens points out that there is an open source package that is free to download and compatible with Microsoft Office, dubbed OpenOffice. Mozilla’s Firefox is an open source Web browser that is growing in popularity for its tabbed browsing and ability to block pop-ups. Or a business can try Thunderbird, a free open source e-mail program by Mozilla. Open source repositories that IT staff can check out include, Codehaus, or

Although some Linux open source operating systems, such as Red Hat, come packaged with a price tag just like Windows, Perens says small businesses don’t have to necessarily plunk down the cash. The small business users who are less tech savvy could start with Ubuntu, which boasts the tagline: “Linux for human beings.” Perens says the Ubuntu OS is easy to install and use. It’s updated every six months and includes server and desktop software that can be installed from a single CD.

Step 3: Determine if you need outside help

If a small or medium-size business already uses outside consultants to deploy, manage or support their IT system, they can consider doing the same when it comes to open source -- especially if they are concerned about not having someone to call if something breaks.

“Vendors and consultants use open source to add value, but the SMB doesn't have to be concerned as long as the reseller is standing behind it,” says Michael Goulde, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass., who’s written several reports on the trend toward enterprise use of open source. “It’s tempting to do it yourself because it’s free. SMBs can get in over their heads really quickly.”

Perens says if a small business's open source application is mission critical to consider using managed servers by an outside vendor. “And if you’re getting big enough that you need support outside of your company, get it locally and find a local consulting firm that is willing to support Linux. For a small business, or one with fewer than 1,000 employees, local support is the best deal.”

If a small firm isn’t tech savvy, Golden aggress that it should look into finding a partner or service provider who is open source aware and supportive. Still he says: “Support is always a concern, no matter what kind of product it is. For most open source products you can find commercial support if you want it. You can also get community support from open source forums, which are tremendous resources and can even be far better than an 800 number that you get with commercial products.”