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Can Ubuntu Linux Really Run My Small Business?

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By Carleen Hawn
July 12, 2007 

Ubuntu, the three-year-old Linux operating system that fast acquired the status of darling in the open-source community, has had a big 12 months. Ubuntu released its seventh operating system, Feisty Fawn, in April. In May, Dell Computer, the second largest maker of PCs, began shipping machines with Ubuntu's new OS preinstalled. Worldwide Ubuntu users now exceed eight million; it took Red Hat and Novell much longer to garner as many devotees of their own Linux-based operating systems.

So Ubuntu is hot, but is it good enough to trust with your mission-critical business operations?

Chris Dawson, founder of Box Populi in Portland thinks it is. "Ubuntu is not perfect, but it works better than anything else that's out there. It's far superior."

Box Populi uses software to convert old PCs into professional-grade recording devices for podcasting. The company's customers include schools, churches, and other businesses that want to distribute large quantities of media, such as daily lectures, sermons, or sales-force directives, to community audiences via podcasts. (Vox Populi is Latin for "voice of the people.")

Dawson has run all but one of Box Populi's internal management systems and all of his company's retail applications on open-source software since he founded the company in October 2003, saving an estimated $146,000 by using Ubuntu instead of Microsoft.

"QuickBooks aside, Dawson prefers Ubuntu not just to other open-source software but to any other software. Period."

The only management task Dawson does not trust to open source is his internal accounting. For that he still relies, albeit grudgingly, on QuickBooks. "We're just not comfortable using a hosted service for our financials, and while there are Linux accounting products out there, they're garbage." QuickBooks aside, Dawson prefers Ubuntu not just to other open-source software but to any other software. Period.

Dawson originally launched Box Populi on SUSE Linux (SUSE is now Novell). He switched to Ubuntu in mid-2004, he says, after watching the new operating system skyrocket up review lists on sites such as Slashdot, Reddit, and DistroWatch.com, which keep track of popular products in the open-source space.

Dawson's favorite products are Ubuntu's K Desktop Environment, known as KDE; applications such as KOrganizer, for calendaring; KAddressbook; and KPilot, which is like a desktop Palm. (All Linux software comes in two versions, commonly known as windowing environments: KDE and GNOME. Dawson prefers the KDE products, all of which bear names with a K prefix.)

Kpilot Screenshot "KPilot publishes my calendar on our server so my employees can see what my availability is and schedule a meeting. It means I don't need a personal assistant." That's a big cost-savings for the entrepreneur. A lot of early Linux gurus, Red Hat programmers working in labs (i.e., not running small businesses of their own), neglected this kind of stuff, Dawson explains. "Once you start running a business, you realize you really need a calendaring system." Dawson uses KDeveloper as the framework for his main product, the podcasting software, and he uses Sugar, Ubuntu's CRM product, to interface with his clients.

In addition to the cost savings and the quality of the programs, there are bigger reasons Dawson is glad he made the change.

What is so great about Ubuntu? "It has the best user community built around it," he says. In the world of collaborative software, a good user community means good IT support: Users share "patches" (fixes for bugs) and other knowledge from trial and error with fellow Ubuntu users. "It's like having an extra staff of 50 people working for us at no cost," Dawson notes. "It means we can provide support to our own customers, at no cost. It is an ecosystem that isn't available to us if we use Novell or Red Hat."

This is because Red Hat and Novell have drawn distinctions between "community supported" (free) versions of their software and the "commercial" (fee-based) versions sold to businesses. Naturally, then, resources once devoted to supporting the free versions have been redirected to paying customers. Box Populi would have to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 to get the same IT support from Red Hat or Novell that it gets for free from Ubuntu, Dawson claims. (With Microsoft, he adds, IT support for his company's 80 servers -- one dedicated to each client -- would cost him more than $100,000.) It is too steep a price for Box Populi, which has just four employees and less than 100 customers, and charges the very same amount, $2,000, for its podcasting machines, including the Box Populi service agreement. Moreover, many of Dawson's customers (some are nonprofits) don't buy finished podcasting machines at all but recycle old PCs they already own, purchasing only a $300 Box Populi software license and support contract.

"But when I have a problem, or one of our customers has a problem with one of our systems, I go onto one of Ubuntu's IRC [Internet Relay Chat] channels and I get free support from people at Canonical [the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu]." This keeps Dawson and his customers up and running, and in the black.

 

Carleen Hawn is a business journalist based in San Francisco and the editor of Found|Read, a community for startup founders that is part of the GigaOmniMedia network at www.GigaOM.com.

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