Transition Your Business to Open-Source Technology

A Roadmap for Transitioning Your
Small Business to Open Source Software
Save time, save money and avoid common pitfalls

By Ron Swift, President and CTO of Swift Staffing

Swift Staffing is a family-owned contract and temporary staffing business. At first glance, we seem similar to many small businesses, but if you look more closely, we have a difference that gives us an edge over the competition: our state-of-the-art technology. The applications we’ve adopted enable us to operate at higher volumes, provide better service and achieve higher revenue levels than ever in our 20 21-year history, while using fewer people to do it. In fact, we are much more efficient now than we were just five years ago.

So what’s different about a small business running better on a strong technology platform? Not much, except for the fact that we pay next to nothing for it.

Now I’d like to offer the lessons I’ve learned to other business owners—and if you have questions about what you read, contact me directly.

“There has to be a better way”

In 2005, we were a Windows-centric organization—as are most small businesses today. We were using applications like Microsoft SQL severs for our databases, Exchange for our email, Windows on desktops and so forth. Like all responsible businesses, we stayed current on our licensing and upgrades. As a result, we incurred regular, recurring costs for our software, but that was not the reason we began exploring options. More and more, we were having many minor and some very major headaches with servers and other software crashing for one reason or another. As a technology enthusiast myself, I thought there had to be a better way. Instead of constantly renewing licenses and upgrading to newer versions in order to continue vendor support, I started looking into open source software alternatives, and I’ve never looked back.

When the project started, my goal was to resolve pain points and to stem the flow of tech support dollars spent fixing the problems—not to transition nearly every technology function in the company to open source. Yet along the way, I found that there are excellent applications to replace any commercial software—from productivity suites like Open Office, to accounting, e-commerce or inventory management and more.

The list of applications is steadily increasing, so you’ll have a greater variety to choose from than I did. I recommend business owners select popular programs with a large number of users. If an application has a large user group, the program is almost certainly stable. Also, the open source user group communities can be very helpful information resources, so the larger a program’s install base, the better. Please note, even though the vast majority of open source software is free—or very nearly, and some offer support services for a fee.

First, get an open source-savvy IT person involved in the planning

From one small business owner to anther, take my advice: when you transition your business technology to open source, you will want advice from an IT expert. Your IT consultant will help you inventory your current technology environment, develop a list of open source alternatives, and craft a staged implementation plan. You won’t need IT support eight hours a day, 40-hours a week, but unless you are a highly technical person, you will run into issues you’ll likely not be able to address yourself.

If you don’t have in-house expertise in this area, Swift Staffing can contract IT resources to replicate what we’ve done. If you were fully committed to transitioning, it might be done in as little as a few months for a small office; however, I advise business owners to take a measured approach, transitioning the back end technologies, like server software, before introducing changes to your desktops.

Before you go live: Preview critical applications virtually

Your data is your business; so this should go without saying, but: do not sacrifice data security for a speedy transition. When we went to transition Swift Staffing’s Enterprise Database server, it contained 16 years of our data. This server is a critical, core piece of our business, so it was key to our continuity that everything be correct. We made this move very slowly, running dual applications for six months just to be sure everything was right.

In Swift Staffing’s case, we took the same pains when we transitioned to open source accounting system. We’d been using a widely recognized commercial system for many years. Now we use NolaPro, a very full-featured, free, multi-user web based accounting program, but before we made the decision, we conferred with our accountant to be sure it would give us the information we needed. We ran this system in a dual environment for six months as well. NolaPro eventually eliminated the need for outside payroll services.

By testing in a virtual server environment like Vmware, Virtualbox or KVM, you can confirm that applications and hardware work well together. There is a real possibility of crippling your existing systems, so make absolutely certain that there are no technology conflicts before you flip the switch from commercial to open source server software.

Introduce to open source apps on the backend first

Change can be threatening, but often it is the fear of change that is more problematic. We recommend making the first transition on the backend. Changes to your back end file severs or mail server will be transparent to your employees or customers, but will give you the satisfaction have having made a positive step to getting control over your IT environment.

If you have not looked in to internet phones, also known as voice over IP (VOIP), you should immediately. This is another transition that can save a significant amount of money over traditional phones and add a host of new features. The open-source VOIP solution that we chose is PBX in a Flash, which uses Asterisk. At Swift Staffing, we save close to $9,000 a year using VOIP.

Transition desktop applications in stages

Many of the most popular open source application work well in a Windows environment. Start your desktop transition by introducing programs like the Mozilla Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email. Your people will find them more secure and just as easy to use–if not easier–than familiar commercial programs.

Next, consider installing LibreOffice, an office productivity suite featuring word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs that are compatible with MS Office. OpenOffice was developed by Sun Microsystems which was recently acquired by technology giant, Oracle Corporation. Your employees can get used to the new program on the familiar Windows desktop, and when you transition to a new operating system, these programs look and behave just the same.

Transition to open source operating systems and other specialized apps

We use Ubuntu as our primary operating system. To get our people used to its look and feel, we instituted a dual boot system, which enabled users to select between Ubuntu and Windows while they developed familiarity with the new system.

We also gave our employees copies of Ubuntu on CD to install and play with on their home computers. This is a flexibility that commercial software does not allow. Our users ere able to open Ubuntu from the disk, and use it fully without installing it on their home computers.

Be open to employee concerns and offer training

A change in technology is a change in culture, and as is true with all major change, transitioning to new software is easier with employee support. While you see the benefit clearly, don’t assume the same is true for your employees. Don’t force people through the transition; make them want to change.

Most people fear the unknown, and in a competitive job market your employees might fear that workplace skills will not stay current using open source tools. Fortunately, you can assure them that more and more businesses are switching to open source tools, and the trend is likely to make them even more marketable.

You should also consider bringing in resources to train key staff, who can then act as trainers for the rest of your people.

Enjoy the benefits

Swift Staffing saw a dramatic reduction in technology spending in the first year after the transition, cutting more than $35,000 from a $41,000 expense. The benefits to your business will depend on how you are using technology today. On thing is sure: Whether you are a start up or a small business with a long history, open source technology should be part of your future.

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