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Open source integration, policy

If the recession has prompted you to integrate open source software into your business, first form an open source policy with the help of our expert's guidance.

How much of a role does open source policy make in the success of a small-to-medium business? What considerations should IT Managers take to make sure that these policies will work for their company?
I don't know how large the 'M' in SMB goes, but speaking for the many small businesses out there, they don't usually have a policy about software, let alone open source software.

This is a question that is more complex than the way small businesses think; my answer might better convey what I mean:

I took up open source policies in SMB companies with J, who runs an integrator business serving the SMB market. J advises small businesses in which tools and strategies will suit them best in the integration process.

In reply, he gave me a wicked grin and said, "If they're using me, they have a de facto open source policy." Most of his customers simply want stuff to work. They don't care what the answer is given that it falls within their price constraints.

But J says he is getting more of a new kind of customer - one that comes to him specifically for open source. It may be that he is simply growing his business in that direction with his reputation; we can't extrapolate that there is a larger trend of SMB looking specifically for open source (but it wouldn't surprise me--the cost of Exchange and the problems with Vista don't go unnoticed). J concentrates on the job, so he doesn't ask these customers why they are going open source. Occasionally, though, someone will say they like the new setup, mentioning no licensing worries, or no vendor lock-in.

There is one benefit that J's open source-employing customers share: they are absolutely guaranteed to spend less money on IT than if they had stayed with proprietary software. Microsoft integrators I know brew up their own CDs of favored installations of Microsoft products and use these install disks while buying the proper licenses; J cuts and trims open source software to suit his business and installs it without paying any fees.

At this point, J will not take on any customers who don't have a "significant portion" of their business on open source. Thankfully, most people nowadays solve their own XP desktop problems, and J needs only handle tasks like setting up file sharing, mail clients, or net drives to Samba. There is a limit to this provisionary Microsoft service, however, since J refuses to handle Vista at all (he claims not to have heard of Windows 7).

As he says, in businesses without an open source policy in place (most of them), the IT boss makes a de facto policy. While the big technology companies picked up open source early and figured out how to make money off it, the more extensive world of smaller businesses is slower to change. Small integrators can lead their customers to take full advantage of the economy and functionalities of open source software. With this guidance, SMBs can lower their IT costs and ultimately make more money than they would with proprietary software.
This was first published in October 2008

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