The Freedom of Open Source

Is the open source movement paradise for small and midsized businesses, or just a mirage in the desert?


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At the last-ever reseller conference of Accpac International-which was about to disappear into Sage-an IBM executive handed out checks to resellers who had sold installations of Accpac on Linux that utilized IBM's DB2 database. Nobody has handed out checks for Accpac Linux installations since IBM's Scott Handy did it at the reseller get-together in Quebec City in August 2003, and Accpac has been quiet about Linux.

But there are some fans, including David Beck, president of SystemLink North America, an Accpac reseller that also has a European arm.

"I'd like to continue to support the Linux platform," says Beck. "Clients like choices. Some of our clients want Linux. There is a small group of anti-Microsoft bigots that when they come looking, there is not a lot in the application space."

Partner Insights

Beck says most Linux installations involve running IBM DB2 database on a Linux server while running the accounting application on a Microsoft system. "But in the users' minds, they have Linux," he notes.

Linux has been more successful with SystemLink's international operations. "Overseas, we have some installs that are using the full Linux system, front and back," he says.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Sage Accpac, which supports both Windows and Linux, estimates this year that as much as 20 percent of its installations were on Linux, up from 12 percent a year earlier. And Craig Downing, vice president and general manager of Sage Accpac, predicts open-source adoption rates will accelerate as technologically savvy workers begin occupying the executive suites at large corporations.

"When we look five to ten years down the road," says Downing, "as more of those who grew up on the Web move up into the C-ranks [CEO, CFO and CIO] they will be more comfortable trying other platforms."

MySQL Makes a Dent in the Market

Although discussions about open source often focus on the Linux operating system, there is a lot more to this world than just Linux.

MySQL AB, which markets MySQL, an open-source database, claims 6 million installations. The latest version, MySQL 5.0, supports Linux, Windows, Solaris, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, HP-UX, IBM AIX 5L, and other operating systems.

The company's Web site provides the following ten benefits of using MySQL:

1. Scalability and flexibility. The MySQL database can handle applications of 1MB to massive data warehouses with terabytes of information. It supports all flavors of Linux, Unix, and Windows.

2. High performance. The database server can be configured for particular applications, which results in strong performance.

3. High availability. MySQL offers a variety of high-availability options from high-speed master/slave replication configurations, to specialized Cluster servers offering instant failover, to third-party vendors offering unique high-availability solutions for the MySQL database server.

4. Robust transactional support. Features include complete ACID (atomic, consistent, isolated, durable) transaction support, unlimited row-level locking, distributed transaction capability, and multi-version transaction support where readers never block writers and vice-versa.

5. Web and data warehouse strengths. MyQL is appropriate for high-traffic Web sites because of its high-performance query engine, tremendously fast data insert capability, and strong support for specialized Web functions like fast full-text searches.

6. Strong data protection. MySQL's features ensure that only authorized users have entry to the database server, with the ability to block users down to the client machine-level being possible.

7. Comprehensive application development. The database supports features such as stored procedures, triggers, functions, views, cursors, and ANSI-standard SQL.

8. Management ease. It offers quick-start capability with the average time from software download to installation completion being less than 15 minutes.

9. Open source freedom and 24/7 support. The system has complete around-the-clock support, as well as indemnification available through MySQL Network.

10. Lowest total cost of ownership. This is accomplished through the use of the MySQL database server and scale-out architectures that utilize low-cost, commodity hardware.

The major research houses agree with that view. This year, the Yankee Group's SMB Infrastructure Survey reported that the percentage of SMB users with Linux on the desktop was expected to hit 10 percent, double the percentage in 2004. In 2003, the technology market research and consulting firm found less than 1 percent of SMBs ran Linux on the desktop.

By October 2008, the market for hardware and software using the Linux operating system is estimated to grow to $38 billion, according to market research firm IDC.

In the meantime, Accpac has plans to launch a special version of a Linux-based product targeting small-to-midsized companies that doesn't require Linux knowledge or a technician to train users.

Staying Up

In the face of the popularity of Microsoft platforms, why buy Linux at all? A major reason is that Linux has a reputation for a high degree of reliability. Linux-based systems rarely go down, as opposed to Windows-based systems, which can crash with distressing regularity.

TBC International took a client's Linux server down after about 275 consecutive days of operation "just to show we were there," quips the company's president, Richard Paul Thomas.

Salado, Texas-based TBC sells Linux systems primarily to customers who are moving off SCO Unix or Novell NetWare. Linux represents about 20 percent of the reseller's revenue. Thomas believes that will rise with the emergence of Version 7.0 of Open Systems Accounting Software, which is in controlled release.

Thomas also sees an opportunity in the Macintosh market. He already has one client that is running OSAS on a Mac server. With Apple expected to release Macs that will run Linux natively, Thomas believes OSAS will have a better offering for graphics businesses, such as advertising agencies, that use Macs.

Open Systems, based in Shakopee, Minn., does not track the number of installations by operation system. When it did a few years ago, the non-Windows component was 40 percent of the total, says Paul Lundquist, vice president of sales. Non-Windows, at that point, was more likely to be SCO Unix or IBM's AIX, a version of Unix. However, many of those customers have moved to Linux for the same reason that they initially adopted Unix. "It was pretty bullet-proof," says Lundquist.

"One of our biggest clients has a 750-unit system. They are now on Unix and we are spec-ing out Linux for the 2006 budget," he continues. Lundquist also says that Linux has become easier to see as business applications for that environment have emerged, particularly the OpenOffice Suite, which provides applications such as word processing for open-source platforms. Also important for those who do not want to abandon the Microsoft Office Platform is that a Windows workstation can run on a Linux network.

OSAS supports the major versions of Linux. It is certified Red Hat-Ready for Version 2.1 of Red Hat's implementation of Linux and is certified for Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9.

However, Linux has had a tough time outside of companies that have IT staffs and that were not using some flavor of Unix.

Linux is not generally a saleable product, says Jeff Hapeman, chief technology officer of Peoria, Ill.-based Clifton Gunderson.

"Our experience is that the mid-market is not asking for it," he says. "The IT guy might like to do it as job insurance."

However, the firm actually uses Linux quite regularly when "we need a dumb device that we have full control over, such as a network audit data collection device," he says. Such devices are installed at client sites, operating like an appliance.

One of the big advantages to open source is that it is supposed to be less expensive than packaged software. Hapeman says that Linux applications do not produce as much in savings as proponents might think, because less than 10 percent of the total cost of ownership of software is the licensing fees. On the other side, Hapeman says users have to worry about support. He agrees with Lundquist about the impact Linux has had on the Unix world. That operating system has been largely displaced by Linux and Windows.

"There is very little Unix left now," he says.

Much of the interest in open source in the U.S. comes from the source-code community. Resellers who sell source-code products such as Open Systems Accounting Software are accustomed to tinkering with code for users who want customization. These VARs are less worried about vendor support, since they provide most end-user support themselves.

However, not every source-code vendor has an entry in the Linux market. Tommie Tan, chief technology officer of Novato, Calif.-based AccountMate, says his company has no plans to support Linux. "We see absolutely no interest from our customers," says Tan.

There are very few Linux entries in packaged accounting software. An exception is Tacoma, Wash.-based InsynQ, which recently acquired Appgen, which has been fielding Linux-based accounting software for several years. In fact, it supports a broad range of operating systems, including Apple's Macintosh.

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