Tux the penguin is the Linux mascotMost small businesses assume that unless they want to use Apple computers, they have little choice but to use Microsoft Windows as their desktop operating system. In most cases, Windows is indeed the best option simply because almost everybody knows how to use it, and it runs pretty much every software application you could need. However, not everybody is happy with Windows and amongst those seeking an alternative Linux is the clear favourite.

In a recent report entitled ‘Migrating to Linux on the Desktop – A practical IT management view’ analyst firm Quocirca (www.quocirca.com) interviewed 1700 IT professionals on the subject. Their report cites several key reasons that organisations are considering turning away from Windows. Unsurprisingly, poor security and the cost associated with keeping their Windows machines secure were listed as the main problems, but poor performance, instability and the cost of Window’s licences were highlighted as major bugbears.

Linux is a free ‘open source’ operating system based on Unix, a long established server operating system often used for high end applications where stability and performance are essential. There are numerous different variations of Linux available, which are generally referred to as ‘distributions’, these are produced by commercial organisations such as Redhat (www.redhat.com) or by community groups of civic minded software developers as in the case of Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com). These two distributions provide a good illustration of the point that although there are different versions of Linux designed for different purposes, they are all essentially based on the same underlying engine. Redhat is designed for enterprise level applications and Ubuntu is intended more for use on desktop PCs. While both distributions may appear quite different on the surface, they are cross-compatible and can run the same software packages. No matter which distribution you pick, Linux is always free – companies such as Redhat make money by providing technical support and consultancy type services.

While desktop oriented distributions such as Ubuntu are generally quite simple for the end users to operate after a little initiation, setting the software up in the first place is somewhat more complex and this is one of the main issues that deters many potential Linux users. Linux developers are constantly refining the software and attempting to make it more accessible to non-technical users, but at the moment it is still something of a stumbling block.

Likewise, lack of available software is perceived as being a serious obstacle to Linux uptake, but this is open to debate. The market leading MS Office suite of applications is not available for the Linux platform, but alternatives exist. The main open source rival to MS Office is Open Office (www.openoffice.org) a high quality suite of office applications which can be downloaded at no cost and runs on Windows, Linux and Mac OS. For most major commercial business applications there are high quality Linux compatible alternatives available, and in most cases they will also be free open source software.

In many respects smaller businesses are better able to take advantage of the Linux platform, since they can be more nimble and are less likely to have large, complex legacy IT systems already in place. Linux certainly is not ideal for all situations, but if you are unhappy with Windows it is well worth exploring the alternatives.


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