IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

Is It Time for Linux?

Long the domain of super-techies, the open source operating system and applications are getting a second look due to the looming loss of Microsoft Small Business Server support. By Lauren Gibbons Paul

Amy Babinchak, president of Harbor Computing Services, is that rare SMB channel partner who is not afraid of Linux, command prompts and all. Though none of her small business customers has yet asked about the potential of replacing the soon-to-be-sunsetted Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) with the open source alternatives, Babinchak wanted to become familiar with Linux. So, she installed it as the computing platform for her second company, Third Tier, which provides support services to IT companies.

"We are not deploying Linux for end customers but we do use it for ourselves," she says. "I wanted to gain more experience with Linux so we would be able to talk to other companies about it," if the need arises.

"Linux requires a different way of doing things," says Babinchak, whose companies are based in the Greater Detroit area. Linux does reduce costs, she says, as there are no licensing or support costs for the underlying operating system and hardware requirements tend to be lighter. Applications are a different story. "Once you put the apps on there, it's no longer free. Kerio email works out pretty close to the licensing fees that Microsoft charges for Exchange," she says. San Jose, Calif.-based Kerio Technologies Inc. is primarily known for its email software, but also offers security, file sharing, and VoIP solutions.

With the date of the loss of support for Microsoft SBS looming in April, Babinchak has considered offering customers Linux as a back-office replacement option to run on existing hardware. But she wonders if she should encourage them to move to the cloud instead (whether Linux or otherwise). "Do we want to continue with the on-premises theme or do we want to move to cloud?" she asks. In any case, her clients are not exactly pounding on the door demanding Linux.

Just the word evokes geekdom. Long the domain of seriously techie developers and large enterprises, Linux has not had much traction with either SMBs or the channel that serves them, despite the potential of lower costs.

But that may be about to change. "The loss of SBS support creates a huge disruption in the channel," says Harry Brelsford, CEO of SMB Nation, of Bainbridge Island, Wash. "Everything is on the table. It's a free market. They created the situation, now Microsoft has to earn our business." It's no wonder channel partners-and their customers-are looking around for options, with Linux being one.

Linux: Now for Mere Mortals
In the last few years, many more channel partners have begun to offer their customers the Linux option. "The economic difficulties of 2008 and 2009 drove a lot of this," says Jay Lyman, senior analyst, enterprise software, for 451 Research. "The recession really elevated the appeal of open source software since it is associated with cost savings. As small businesses scale up their operations, they quickly outrun their budget trying to provide the servers and computing power they need. That's why Linux has become more appealing." Lyman notes SMBs needing to run applications such as email and backup on Linux do have to pay for licenses and support, cutting into the savings.

Meanwhile, the user interface aspects of Linux have improved dramatically. "The Linux distributions and suites have become more usable out of the box, which is important for small businesses," says Lyman. Suites such as Ubuntu, from Canonical Ltd., Lexington, Mass., are getting away from Linux's traditional command line interface, which is intimidating for the nontech-savvy, and are focused on ease of use.

The pricing and support options for Ubuntu and Zentyal, from the Spanish company of the same name, are similar to what Microsoft charges for Windows and SBS, adds Lyman. "These are more user friendly and more consumable for the market and for channel players" than previous Linux offerings. Added bonus: The source code is available.

For channel partners whose customers are asking about Linux, have them download the operating system and applications and use them for free, beyond the 30-day trial period conventional software packages offer. "We see Linux getting a beachhead within an organization this way," says Lyman, who cautions that experimenting and using Linux for free is both a benefit and a burden. "It's different from what channel players and their customers are used to."

To some degree, SMBs tend to follow what the enterprise market is doing, and the enterprise market has embraced Linux, says Lyman. "Large enterprises are using Linux for their email servers and groupware. They get cost savings and greater flexibility. If you want support you pay for that. There is a lot of trepidation and uncertainty. Things like Linux can take a long time to take hold, but channel players see the writing on the wall that they need to be offering these options. People are asking about Linux," says Lyman.

On the other hand, like Babinchak, Lyman thinks most small businesses should be looking at cloud as opposed to acquiring more hardware, Linux or no Linux. Still, most companies do not want their email to reside in the public cloud due to security concerns. "That's where we see the migration to Linux. Email is a common app everyone has. Everyone has to manage it in-house. That's where the more technical SMBs are realizing they have more options," he says.

Will the Channel Embrace Linux?

But it's not clear whether Linux will eventually appeal to the channel community that serves SMBs. Jeff Middleton, for one, does not think Linux will ever take hold. "Linux is less attractive to most SBS-oriented resellers for the basic point that they are not Linux literate," says Middleton, president of IT Pro Experts, an IT consulting services firm in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. The reason channel pros embraced SBS was that it was a complete solution in a box that came with a wealth of support options from Microsoft, he adds.

"The loss of SBS for these guys isn't just the loss of a product SKU; they relied upon selling a branded solution from Microsoft, the support that was behind it, and the ease of deployment. Very few resellers and integrators who had a commitment to SBS would find Linux attractive as opposed to building out similar features using standard Microsoft products," says Middleton.

Babinchak is inclined to agree. "Ultimately, it's just not clear to us whether the Linux varieties will provide any advantage over going to the cloud or using individual Microsoft components," she says. Customers still have to pay the fees and licensing for Linux applications, so the cost advantage isn't dramatic.

"Is there a services and functionality advantage? There too it's kind of an even playing field. There is no advantage to going to Linux," says Babinchak. Not yet, and maybe not ever.

Linux doesn't come up in conversations about XP migration, says Brelsford. "Linux doesn't seem to have mindshare in the SMB community." Will this always be the case? It's hard to say just now.

This is true even for channel companies whose clients still run SBS. "Most of our clients that run SBS are on SBS 2011, and they have no critical need to move from that at this time," says Babinchak. "We don't have to do anything immediately."

For clients that do need to make a change right now, her firm is recommending Office 365 plus a local server for data storage and email. "Sometimes we do deploy the individual [Microsoft] components, especially if the client inherited them through their volume license agreement. We virtualize the components so they are sitting in one piece of hardware," she says.

Despite the common saying within the open source community, Linux does not seem to be inevitable, at least not for small businesses and the channel pros who serve them. Be aware, though, that the reward could be great to anyone who understands Linux and can make it work for customers. "Someone is going to figure this out someday, and it's going to be a tight little niche," says Brelsford.

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