Open Source and SMEs

| March 3, 2009

A few years ago you did have to be a techy to run on Open Source, now it's relatively easy. SMEs should make the most of it.

I have seen several articles of late suggesting that in these tough times companies might turn to Open Source software solutions as a way of mitigating some of the costs of businesses providing their IT systems, for example "Business is booming for open source adopters" (CRN Australia, 19 Feb 2009). In line with much of the discussion of Open Source, these articles often seem to relate to large corporations and focus on the server infrastructure rather than the day to day IT requirements of businesses. 

I've been thinking along these lines myself for a while now but, whilst I'm sure there is a compelling role for Open Source in large corporates and datacentres, I do not believe that this is the limit of its applicability.  Quite the contrary, I believe that SMEs stand to gain as much if not more from Open Source solutions than larger organisations.  Moreover, some of the most significant gains are in using Open Source solutions for the most mundane of IT requirements on the average users desk-top.

Back in June '06 Integrated Wireless had about 30 staff and, like many companies, even more computers in the business.  We decided that there were significant gains for us in establishing a Standard Operating Environment for our desktop computer systems.  To progress this initiative we first conducted a review of what functionality people needed from their computers.  Not surprisingly email, Internet, word processing, presentations and spreadsheets came top of the list.  In fact, they not only came top, they dwarfed every other requirement.  Moreover, our usage of these systems was extensive but shallow in that everyone used them all of the time but virtually no-one was pushing the boundaries of the feature sets.

Based on  personal experience it was clear to me that our requirements could readily be met by freely available and well supported Open Source applications such as Thunderbird for email, Firefox for accessing the Internet and Open Office for word-processing, spreadsheets and presentations.  Furthermore, if we were to use these applications then there was no reason that we couldn't deploy Linux as the desk-top operating system since these applications were all supported natively on Linux. 

Another feature of our business, and one that I presume we share with most SMEs, is that we can not justify full-time in-house support for IT.  The above desk-top applications worked well within this mandatory constraint as they are entirely intuitive for anyone that has used a PC in the last five years and no specific user training was required.  Indeed, these applications are all available for Windows and we found that many staff were already familiar with them.

Our implementation methodology was very straight forward.  We just set-up systems for two users so that we could fine tune the installations over a month or two of live usage and then replicated the final set-up across our desk-tops department by department.  Most importantly we just stopped buying proprietary software.  PCs were sourced without Windows and provisioned to our staff with Linux and the standard Open Source applications pre loaded and configured.

We now have over 50 staff all of whom primarily use Open Source software with about half running entirely Open Source including Linux as the operating system. The applications listed above remain our core application set but we have added other Open Source solutions to the supported portfolio including Scribus for desktop publishing and Dia for diagrams and schematics. 

We estimate our cash savings to be well over $50,000 but the net benefit has been far greater.  Working with Linux and associated Open Source applications means we have a desktop environment that is fit for purpose but not motivating of spurious use and of course we have no virus or malware issues as Linux just doesn't suffer from these problems.

I believe that many SMEs would benefit from adopting an Open Source first policy for meeting their IT requirements and, given the current economic conditions, now is a great time to give it a go.

Leo Silver is Executive Director of Security Communications Solutions International (SCSI), a leading provider of wireless alarm transmission Systems and Integrated Wireless, the leading provider of messaging, alarm and personal duress systems to intensive operational environments. Previously Leo was Joint Executive Director of Information City Australia, a business incubator for early stage IT companies and prior to that he was a a member of the Executive Management Team in Australia at Ericsson. He has provided extensive mentoring to investee businesses, particularly in the areas of commercialisation and growth strategies. As well as his roles with SCSI and Integrated Wireless, he is a sponsor of several other early stage technology businesses and has a particular interest in Open Source software solutions as a platform for rationale business IT systems and services which he believes represent a major opportunity for new Australian based IT businesses.,



  1. sally.rose

    March 9, 2009 at 5:02 am

    Did you scare them?

    Was there much resistance from within the organisation when you first rolled this out?   If so, have attitudes changed much?