Open source as an alternative for small businesses

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User experience vs. design

Is it safe to use? What alternatives do I have? Is it easy to install?

These were some of the questions asked by Amandeep, a New Delhi based owner of a small scale clothing company, when I pitched to him a few open source solutions that could make his day-to-day operations more efficient. For someone without any IT background (but a sharp business sense), these were brilliant and relevant questions. The answers to these questions won't just help Amandeep, but if shared broadly may help reduce the apprehension of a significant number of small scale business owners, especially in India. My interactions have shown that a lot of these businesses are looking to grow, enhance their productivity, and most importantly, save costs.

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Approximately 7,500 miles away from Amandeep in New Delhi lives Nabeel Hussain. Nabeel, a graduate of Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre, is a new product development and digital marketing specialist actively engaged in Waterloo, one of the top entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world. As an entrepreneur, he is always faced with the challenge of managing limited resources while building traction. He has a plethora of technology solutions at his disposal, and the technical know-how to utilize these solutions. Additionally, he has a robust support system to advise and guide him to the best available solution that fits his needs. For Nabeel, open source solutions provide an inexpensive alternative for crafting early stage prototypes for his ideas and validating them with customers. From using WordPress and its library of plugins, to venturing into OpenShift Origin and Joomla, he has the knowledge to make use of top notch technology to reduce risk, manager resources, and build traction for his venture.

These two different scenarios indicate a categorical gap in the knowledge of entrepreneurs when it comes to adopting open source solutions. Although there is some geographic gap between the entrepreneurs in the developed and the developing world, as well as a gap that spawns from business exposure/experience, the problem is wider than that. There is a difference in productivity and efficiency between entrepreneurs who utilize open source solutions and those who do not. The situation becomes clear when we look at those small scale business owners who are technology pros versus those who are not.

A significant number of businesses, in India in particular and in the developing world in general, are of a mom-and-pop business nature. Based on my recent interactions with these small scale business owners, I see widespread misconceptions pertaining to open source software. The questions that Amandeep from New Delhi asked me are critical in nature. In order for small scale businesses to adopt open source solutions, it is vital to address these misconceptions.

Is open source software really safe?

The question arises from the basic process that is followed to write code using open source way. If any hacker can read your code, then why can't they use the knowledge to their personal benefit? Most of those sorts of malicious attempts fail because there are a lot of committed people looking over the source code, finding problems, and fixing them. More eyes tame bugs quickly. And security by obscurity is no security at all. What strikes me at this point of time are the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, "Public security is always more secure than proprietary security…For us, open source isn't just a business model; it's smart engineering practice."

Developing code in an open source fashion is an expression of a technique. Software, in our world, should be treated as a service which can be customized based on the specific needs of a user, rather than merely as a product.

I know a lot of people involved at different levels of open source projects. All of them are driven by their commitment to reach technical and professional excellence, and to add to the existing body of technology knowledge. The entire ecosystem of open source is built on that commitment. The Linux operating system, for example, with its proven track record of stability and security, forms the backbone of complex infrastructures and data centers world over. The same benefits that help Linux and other open source tools succeed at the enterprise level can be reaped by small businesses, too.

A couple of months back, I read Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. An otherwise helpful and insightful book, the author seems to host a thought process that open source is contrary to the developers' right to make a profit. A lot of people who think that way do not see the forest for the trees. They see free software, they see Linux, but they miss the multi-billion dollar ecosystem that surrounds open source. Its true that Brian Behlendorf, the person who orchestrated Apache web server, did not make a dime off it, but the immense value that this server has added to the economy and the legions of small to medium size businesses that use this infrastructure is an important contribution. Free software developed by a community is not tantamount to insecurity.

Are there quality alternatives available?

Gone are the days when open source was produced only by the engineers, for the engineers. From word processing to calendar applications to servers and to setting up telephone communication networks, small businesses can benefit hugely from open source solutions. Let us take the example of word processing, an activity that almost all small businesses, irrespective of their field, carry out.

Microsoft Word is the premium software in the area but it is cluttered with features that a lot of small businesses won't ever use. The bloating of Microsoft Word has cost its simplicity. There are easy to use, simple, free, and open source word processors available out their. A few of these that I have been using (and suggesting to small businesses) as an alternative to Microsoft Word are:

  1. Apache Open Office: This software primarily consists of six tools for managing office tasks, namely: Writer as a word processor, Calc as a spreadsheet tool, Impress for multimedia presentations, Draw for diagrams and 3D applications, Base as a database tool, and Math for creating mathematical equations.
  2. AbiWord: Developed in 1998 with the help of gtkmm, this open source word processor includes both simple word processing features to sophisticated features like multiple views, page columns, and grammar checking.
  3. LibreOffice:This is my favorite and always at the top of my recommendation list for anyone looking for a free and efficient word processing suite. Although the features are similiar to those of ApacheOpen Office, LibreOffice is better when it comes to community support.

There are dozens of other excellent alternative solutions to proprietary software and thousands of open source projects that can serve small businesses. It can sometimes be difficult to select the software which best matches specific needs, but there are plenty of people globally willing to help you make those decisions and help take small businesses down the path to an open and productive future.


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Aseem is a graduate of Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Center, Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo, Canada. He also holds a masters in computers application from Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab, India. On, he serves as an author. He also blogs at


Is that all?! What about alternatives for Sharepoint, Exchange, SQL server, Windows server, ASP, etc. Small businesses pay a fortune for this stuff!!

Aseem probably just wanted to use office applications as an example. But to give you an idea on other software that could be replaced by open source solutions, here are a few examples.

Depending on the features you use from Sharepoint, some of the open source and enterprise web content management systems could do the job too (Drupal, eZ Publish...).

Postgre SQL could replace SQL server or Oracle in a lot of cases. Windows server, well... if you are not running specific Windows software, the server versions from Ubuntu and other distro's can do that job too. Or get enterprise support by using RHEL from Red Hat.

A proprietary DMS could be replaced with Alfresco, an open source solution for an Enterprise Service Bus could be Mulesoft. Exchange can be replaced by Zimbra, or any other mail server of groupware like software (Zarafa is another groupware option).

As for small business like applications, they could look at OpenERP, and SugerCRM. Other software, like project management and reporting are also available. An example for project management:

quote::Aseem probably just wanted to use office applications as an example.

OK that's fine but he hardly delivered on the title "Open source alternatives for small businesses" I for one read this hoping for some real information on what's available. Instead we got the usual suspects.

Thanks for your feedback tracyanne. The purpose of this article is to address the issues surrounding adoption of open source software and address the same. As reflected in the title now, it offers open source as an alternative for small businesses.

Thanks again for your inputs.

Well at least the title reflects the content better. What would be better again is if some, you perhaps Aseem, would give those of us who would like to actually move our employers, business contacts, clients etc to Linux and Open Source/Free Software, a coehrent and detailed list of what is available and how that might impact their business.

Trotting out the usual suspects really doesn't help any, under any article title, and to be honest anyone of those people I'm refering to reading this, and similar articles are not going to see much value in Open Source, if all that appears to be on offer is a replacement for MS Office.

I've used Linux and Free Software/Open Source for my own business, but it is only a very small business and my needs are fairly simple, so we're talking LibreOffice, Gimp, Inkscape, Bluefish, some Software IDEs, and GNUCash, and I really only use LibreOffice Writer. And while for many small businesses a subset of these would be all they need, it would be good if those of us who are trying to "spread the gospell" had some good documentation we could fall back on. That was why I was interested in your article as it was originally titled. At last I thought...

With all respect, but I have to concur with Tracyanne on this one. What we need here is a COHERENT story about doing small businesses with Open Source. Just throwing around a bunch of projects that do stuff won't suffice - we know that. And that's exactly the difference between MS coming at a desk of a small company and us. They have a coherent story. I'm not known for my love of MS, but I got to hand them that one. You should be able to come up with something better.

Hans, thanks for the feedback. The idea is to address the issue pertaining to the mindset of a large number of small scale businesses that do not even look out for open source solutions. The premise was based on the experience and observations with some small scale businesses recently who 1. do not even know that open source solutions exist, 2. who know but still would not use it due to some of the reasons mentioned in the article.
I think if you can change that mindset, address some common misconceptions and then showcase open source solutions (in form of successful case studies) in various categories/line of businesses, you can increase the adoption. This mindset, in fact, is a real problem that faces the software world in general and open source world in particular.

The point here is that open source is an alternative to proprietary software and is as safe, secure and robust as proprietary.. There are a lot of business people who think that one needs to trade off features/quality/security for low cost when it comes to using oss and one of the purposes of the article is to correct that thought process.

Word processing, as an example is one of the most common applications that a substantial number of small scale businesses use, including the one's who have very little to do with technology. It is the widespread use of Word processors that make it tempting to use it as an example here to address the issue in context.

Thanks again for your feedback.

Hans, as a suggestion, you might want to fill in the reader Survey If you have stories to share yourself, feel free to submit them

Done the survey. As for the article, be careful what you wish for. I'm not especially politically correct, I guess that's why they hire me for a columnist on IT.

It's so lovely to know more about handling ones business in an appropriate way, have been seeking advises on how to manage my private own business,

Thanks Jersey for sharing your thoughts. Curious to know more about your business.

A great way to get up and running with open source software I could recommend is looking @ things such as turnkeylinux, jumpstart! and that sort of thing. They do a great job at packaging the software, preconfigured with sensible defaults on top of a virtual machine which allows you to easily experiment with it without requiting arcane knowledge on how to install them.

A great way to get up and running with open source software I could recommend is looking @ things such as turnkeylinux, jumpstart! and that sort of thing. They do a great job at packaging the software, preconfigured with sensible defaults on top of a virtual machine which allows you to easily experiment with it without requiting arcane knowledge on how to install them.

Gee, what about companies in the United States? Or has the opressive tax and regulation environment here made companies too fearful to do anything creative anymore?

It would be neat to have an article on LDAP alternatives to Active Directory since this is usually the core of any business. Centralized accounts.

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