Is Open Source Software Right For Your Small Business?

The obvious benefit is the price (It’s generally free!) The downside is it can be difficult to install, support and manage . We look at the pros and cons and offer you a few good resources and show you how to evaluate the packages your considering.

Opensource software is software that is developed by people with a real intereset in developing applications for everyone to use for free. The biggest repository of opensource software on the web is http://www.sourceforge.net.

Keypoints of open source software

1. It’s free to use and usually distributed for free. Some companies will package it up and make it a little easier to install, for this they charge a small fee. Other companies will sell the product but then give you free support for a limited time.

2. Most open source software is developed for the linux platform. Before considering adopting linux as an operating system you’ll need to make sure you have easy access to linux support people. One really good tech, who happens to be the same guy who sold you the software isn’t good enough. He’ll end up owning your business.

3. Because the operating systems and programming languages the software is developed in are themselves open source, installation, support and upgrades can be exceedingly difficult.

How to evaluate an open source solution.

Despite what your IT staff or consultant might say you want to evaluate any open source solution you’re considering. The depth of the evaluation is dependent on the complexity of the solution. An apache web server would be fairly quick to evaluate. A CRM solution for thirty sales people and several hundred customers is going to require at least a few weeks of testings.

The first step is to set up a test bed server. This can be an older server, just something reliable and fast enough to approximate real world results. As we’ve mentioned before most open source software is linux based so you’re going to need to decide on a linux distribution. Red Hat linux and Suse linux are two of the best and both are supported by the companies that distribute them. Suse linux is now owned by Novell. More than likely you’ll need a development environment and a sql server. Make sure the technican loads a distribution package to do this. The best for Apache, MYsql and PHP is Xampp which can be downloaded at apachefriends.org. Don’t let your techs tell you they’ve got a better way by just installing it piece by piece, you’ll end up paying for it later.

Have your technicians document the installation process, get the application stable and then step back from the test. If they’re spending every day with the end users resolving little problems it should be a red flag that the solution is not stable.

Make sure that the application you’re considering has some external support. This may be as simple as a forum of users but they’re needs to be a place you can go to for basic support issues. Also make sure the application has a user manual. Many open source packages are released with nothing more than a few sentences describing the installation process.

This next step is extremely important. You need to test for a failure. Have the techs rebuild the system from scratch and restore all of the data. If it’s not done within a day, that’s another red flag.

After the evaluation ask yourself these questions.

We’re most people able to take advantage of the software within a day or two?
Was it easy to restore from the simulated crash?
Were problems fixed in a timely manner?
Did the software stay up and running throughout the test?
Did they end users feel like they benefited from using the application?

Eric Gurr is a senior editor at Smbrsource. Contact Mr. Gurr at egurr@intralinkinc.com [http://www.smbresource.com/opensource.html]

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