Open Source Definition and Solutions

Open Source topics covering definition, objectives, systems and solutions.

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How should I get started with open source?

That's really not the right question. The right question is: "What business software needs do I have?" Once you've identified them you simply look at what programs might answer your requirements. Chances are many of them will be open source.

Remember, after all the yadda-yadda about open-source vs. proprietary software, for business users, it's all just software. Over the last few years open source programs, since they tend to develop far faster and are usually cheaper and more secure then their proprietary brothers, have popped up everywhere. There's very few areas, if anym where one or more open-source software programs aren't already well-established options for business users.

What about the desktop?

Despite endless security problems, high prices, and Vista falling flat on its face, Windows is still the dominant desktop operating system.

You can, however, opt to give desktop Linux a try. Anything you might have heard about desktop Linux requiring you to be a technical wizard with the command line, aka the shell, to get any work is pure Microsoft fabrication. Desktop Linux no more requires you to be a techie than Windows XP or Mac OX X does. Everything and anything you can do on a Windows desktop you can do without a lick more trouble on a Linux desktop.

Unlike Windows Vista and Windows 7, where you're faced with a multitude of choices which really boils down the more money you pay, the more access you get to the operating system's features, the Linux desktop offers you essentially the same functionality no matter which one you pick. That said, with multiple Linux distributions and desktop interface, picking a desktop Linux can can be quite confusing.

For starters there are three different popular Linux desktop interfaces: the older KDE 3.5.x series; KDE 4.x; and GNOME 2.x. The short version of the differences between them is that KDE 3.5x looks and acts a fair amount like the Windows XP interface. KDE 4 feels more like Vista's Aero interface without that front-end's notoriously poor performance. GNOME comes closer in feel to Mac OS X Tiger. These interfaces are available on most desktop Linux distributions.

As you may know there are dozens of different Linux desktop distributions. For business purposes, this boils down though to the Debian/Ubuntu family of desktops, which are quite popular and Novell's openSUSE and SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop).

The Debian/Ubuntu family, which includes Mepis, Mint, Ubuntu, and Kubuntu, distributions have some commercial and a great deal of community support. If your office already has some Linux-smart IT administrators, these are all fine choices. SLED has the strongest desktop support from both hardware and software vendors. If you want a desktop Linux with "one throat to choke" support, SLED through a vendor like HP, is your best choice.

You may have noticed that Red Hat is missing from this list. That's because Red Hat's focus is on the server, not the desktop. While Fedora, Red Hat's community Linux, makes a fine desktop, neither the company, nor the Fedora community, support it for business use. This makes Fedora a viable business desktop choice only for offices that already have high-levels of in-house Linux expertise.

Oh course, you can keep your Windows and use open-source software too. Firefox and OpenOffice have already been mentioned, but there's little in the way of software that you're already using that can't be replaced with a free, open-source program. For example, are you locked in with Quicken and its forced upgrade path or the recently deceased Microsoft Money? Then, consider trying GnuCash, which has most of their features and can import the data from either one. For an excellent list of open-source alternatives to proprietary software see the Open Source as Alternative Web site (http://www.osalt.com).

Can I sell open source-based products?

Yes, of course, you can. Companies from IBM on down to one-person shops do it every day. What's different from traditional proprietary software sales is that you have to let your customers get access to the source code. How much access depends on the exact license.

Generally speaking, open-source companies make money from their code not by selling it but by adding services around the program, or by providing enterprise-level support options. This is the moel used by Red Hat, the most successful of all the pure open-source companies.

Other companies maintain two versions of their code. There's the cutting edge, open source one, and the other which uses more mature code, which frequent adds proprietary add-ons. This mixed model is becoming increasingly popular, with companies like SourceFire, a network security company and Alfresco, which supplies content management software doing quite well with this model.

Another popular approach is to use open-source software as the engine behind a SaaS (Software as a Service) business. Zimbra, an e-mail/groupware company, and SugarCRM (http://www.sugarcrm.com/crm/) are two outstanding examples of this approach in action.

Other open-source resources

Locations on the Web to find Open-Source Software

  • Apache Foundation. Best known as the open-source group behind the Apache Web server, the Foundation also supports numerous important server-side open-source projects.
  • Linux Foundation. The non-profit group behind Linux. Their site also provides access to many useful Linux resources.
  • Practical Technology. News and opinion site, which is largely devoted to open source technology and business news, reviews, and opinion.
  • SourceForge. This is one of the largest and most popular open-source development and download sites.
  • FreshMeat: A huge database of downloadable software, much of it open source.

Open-Source Resources: Legal and Otherwise


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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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