By Jonathan Stoddard
Most small business owners understand that technology can be used to help grow and sustain their businesses. These same small business owners are often discouraged because many great software products are too expensive for the small business budget.
The good news is that software doesn't need to cost a lot of money. In fact, a lot of great software is completely free. How much do you think it would cost to purchase the operating system that Google uses to run the majority of its servers? What about the cost of the e-mail system for the city of Washington D.C.? Would you believe that you could get the same software used by these organizations for free? Well, it's true. There are thousands of great products used by many large organizations that anyone can use for free.
Open Source Software
The best free software falls into two categories: open source software and software as a service. Open source software is software that can be freely distributed and edited. Think of it as a community project. Anyone with programming knowledge can contribute to the software. Linux is the most popular open source operating system. Google uses a version of Linux to run the majority of its servers.
The scope of open source software is so broad that you can find an open source version of almost any software you need for your business. In fact, the Dutch government has created a policy that states all government departments must use open source software unless they prove an open source option doesn't exist.1
Open source software has many benefits. The first is the cost savings. Merrill Lynch has seen a 90 percent cost savings in software applications that are open source. E*trade has echoed similar cost savings of open source software.2
Another benefit of open source software is security and reliability. Remember that open source software is like a community project. When a bug or glitch is found in the software the issue can be fixed quickly, because there is a large pool of people who are able to fix the bug. Because the inner workings of the software are available for anyone to see, open source software is subject to a great peer review process. A 2008 server reliability study produced by the Yankee Group showed that various Linux distributions had the highest server reliability scores.3
Software as a Service
Software as a service, or SaaS, is one of the newest categories of software. Instead of buying it, you use or rent the software when you need it. Normally, you access SaaS through a Web browser. Online e-mail is one of the most common examples of SaaS. Instead of purchasing and running Microsoft Outlook when you want to check your e-mail, you go to a Web site like Gmail.com and view your e-mail. You don't install Gmail, nor do you pay money to use it. Gmail is a software as a service.
Another advantage of SaaS is that you do not need to buy any computer hardware to use the software. This is very attractive to small business owners who do not have an IT staff to manage a server. With SaaS you no longer need to worry about a server or hard drive crashing.
Here are some good open source and SaaS options for your business:
E-mail and Calendar: Google Applications (www.google.com/a)
Hands down, Google Applications is the best e-mail option for small businesses. I use Google Applications for my company, and I am very pleased with it. Google will give you up to 100 e-mail addresses on your business domain name for free. Each user will get around 7 gigabytes of online e-mail storage, as well as excellent spam filtering.
Additionally, users have access to multiple shared calendars that many people feel beat Microsoft Outlook in functionality. If you need to use Outlook, Google Applications will interface with it. If you ever consider upgrading from your current e-mail system, Google Applications is the best option. Google also has a premium edition that adds a few more features, but you will have to pay for it-$50 per user, per year.
Productivity Suite: Zoho.com (www.zoho.com)
This company offers a little bit of everything, from e-mail to customer relationship management to database creation. While Zoho will charge you for some applications, many applications are free for a limited number of users. This is a great option for companies with just a few employees, because it gives you an integrated e-mail and CRM system for free. Additionally, Zoho is software as a service, which means you don't have to worry about installing any software.
Customer Relationship Management: SugarCRM (www.sugarcrm.com)
SugarCRM is a full-featured customer relationship management product that rivals the functionality of more expensive options. The software is Web based, so it caters to having multiple users who need to access the information. SugarCRM will interface with many e-mail systems to automatically archive e-mails sent to or from your important contacts. You can also automate tasks and customize the information you track. This software is well supported and offers many add-ons that provide additional functionality.
Document Management: Alfresco (www.alfresco.com)
Alfresco allows you to capture, retain and share your content. Alfresco supports all kinds of content, but I like its powerful document management package. With Alfresco, you don't have to worry about accidently overwriting someone's changes to a document, because all versions of a document are archived. This software also makes it easy to share documents, yet control access to them.
Alfresco integrates with Microsoft Office and works just like your shared drive (but with many more features). Alfresco is a great way to move toward a paperless office and stay organized. Consider Alfresco as an alternative to Microsoft Share Point.
Corporate Firewall and Virtual Private Network: Smoothwall (www.smoothwall.org)
Smoothwall provides a very secure office firewall and protection from intruders. It also allows you to control Internet access internally, monitor your bandwidth and give certain applications-such as VoIP phones-priority. What really makes Smoothwall stand out is the option to create a Virtual Private Network. With Smoothwall, you can access all electronic resources such as printers, files servers and e-mail remotely, as long as you have Internet access.
There are many great open source and SaaS options for small businesses. Before spending money on traditional software, it's worthwhile to research the open source and SaaS alternatives online. And don't forget your local IT consultant who specializes in open source software. He might be a little harder to find than a Microsoft consultant, but he can be a valuable resource in helping you save money on software costs.
Jonathan Stoddard is president of the Kahuna Technology Group (www.ktgdenver.com) . KTG helps small businesses use technology to further business goals. Stoddard reviews free software for small businesses each month; sign up for these reviews at www.ktgdenver.com/newsletter. He also serves as a technology expert on FPA's Practice Management Center. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 "Dutch Government Moves Ahead with Plans to Promote Use of Open-source Software," Dec. 13, 2007, Associated Press.
2 "Wall St. Leans Toward Linux," Oct. 21, 2002, Computerworld.
3 "2008 Server OS Reliability Survey," Feb. 22, 2008, Institute for Advanced Professional Studies.