There are lots of good reasons for choosing Linux, and open source software in general, but giving Bill Gates a bloody nose isn’t one of them. For a start he’s unlikely to notice -- but more importantly, it’s a far from trivial decision. It's also a decision made all the harder because of a number of myths that surround the subject.
Myth 1: it’s free
The first myth is the idea that open source means free software. It can mean that, but not always; and although there are significant savings to be had, there are also hidden costs that need to be borne in mind.
The biggest savings come with the initial acquisition. Most implementations of Linux, for example, can be downloaded for virtually nothing, or supplied on CD-ROM or DVD for a few pounds. Moreover, the licence terms normally allow you to install the same copy again and again at little or no extra charge. You’ll also get masses of bundled application and utility software which, likewise, can also be deployed without extra licensing.
It's important to check the licence terms carefully, though. The leading Linux vendors have recently started to charge for their business-oriented products in order to cover the cost of regular updates, enhanced levels of support and other services. Moreover, with many open source applications you’ll find licensing requirements on a par with those for Windows-based alternatives. Cheaper perhaps, but certainly not free.
Myth 2: it’s easy
Another popular myth is that Linux and open source software is as easy to use as Windows, and just as easy to support. It can be, but it’s not Windows and specialist skills are required for that to happen.
If you’re switching from a proprietary Unix, then the skills required are transferable. However, when migrating from Windows or simply adding Linux servers to an otherwise Windows-based network, most small businesses end up having to retrain support staff, recruiting to get the skills required or outsourcing. All of this involves time, effort and, inevitably, money.
Then there are the end users themselves to consider. Linux servers can be transparently integrated into an existing Windows network, but put Linux on the desktop and it’s a completely different ball game. Linux isn’t Windows and, despite a general similarity at the application level, training will always be required. The use of anything other than Windows can discourage new recruits, and has even been known to cause existing staff to leave.
Myth 3: it’s more secure
Finally, Linux advocates would have you believe that open source is an inherently more secure, stable and manageable platform than Windows. There’s certainly a grain of truth in that statement, but it’s not the whole story.
With fewer deployments, open source software is targeted less frequently -- but it is still attacked, and needs regular patching and other maintenance to keep it secure. So you still need network firewalls, antivirus scanners, anti-spyware tools and so on. You could also argue that because the source code is freely accessible, open source software is potentially more vulnerable that a proprietary platform like Windows, requiring greater vigilance as its popularity grows.
Bug fixing and support in general can also be problematic. On the plus side, there’s an army of open source developers ready and willing to fix bugs as they arise, so by the time you find a problem there’s nearly always a fix for it somewhere already. Big-name vendors like IBM, HP and Sun are also keen to provide support. But on the downside, the continual stream of minor patches and updates can be difficult and expensive to manage, and it’s not always obvious where to go to get answers -- to even quite simple questions -- in the first place.
The bottom line
The important thing to understand from a business perspective is that there’s just as much hype surrounding open source as any other software platform. Grasp that, and you’ll be one step further towards realising some of the real benefits from switching to Linux.
It’s definitely not all myth and legend: there are tangible benefits to be had. Just keep your eyes and ears open and look for real evidence of the claims that are being made.