Dec 14, 2012 (06:12 AM EST)
9 Bargain IT Tools For SMBs
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
Veteran IT pro Trevor Thorpe currently plies his trade as network and systems administrator at Draker, a solar energy firm, where he supports around 100 end users. Thorpe regularly turns to open source and free technologies to get the job done there -- as he did at previous career stops, too.
Stretching the budget -- standard operating procedure at many small and midsize businesses (SMBs) -- is one obvious reason Thorpe does so. But he turns to open source and free tools even when cost is less of an issue, such as at the 300-person firm where he worked prior to joining Draker. After all, you won't often anger the bosses by telling them you came in under budget on an IT project.
"Why spend the money if you don't need to, even if you have the money?" Thorpe said in an interview. Some form of cost-benefit analysis, formal or ad-hoc, is usually required. A free version that does 80% of what its paid counterpart does might be good enough in some scenarios. "Like everything, you've got to weigh it [against your other options]," Thorpe advised.
Money isn't the only consideration. Open-source platforms enable skilled do-it-yourself types to tinker and tweak away. "You're not locked into canned software," Thorpe said. "Most of the open-source stuff you can go in and modify yourself. You can configure it, you can integrate it a little bit easier with other things, you can script and program against it to do stuff it may not have been intended to do initially. You can get your hands in there. Whereas when you buy software, you get what you get."
"Free" usually sounds good to just about everyone. Open source, however, isn't always for the faint of heart. It typically requires a certain amount of in-house technical skills to do right, Thorpe noted. "You need talented staff for configuration, and really good troubleshooters and problem solvers," he said. "There's not a pick-up-the-phone option [for help]. You have to dig in and fix it yourself."
Indeed, support is usually light or nonexistent, unless you're willing and able to buy premium support, a common open-source revenue stream. On the plus side, Thorpe notes that the open-source community is a large and collaborative one. That means help and advice is often available online.
Users can be finicky about open-source software, too, particularly if it's going to replace something they're already familiar with. "People resist change," Thorpe said. "It's just like dropping a Mac in front of somebody who's been using Windows, or a Windows box in front of someone who's been using a Mac. You can do the same things, it's just a matter of how you get to do it."
Thorpe's advice to fellow IT pros that are relatively inexperienced with open-source technologies: Read. He recommends reading reviews, forums and similar sources of admin and user feedback before choosing tools. Moreover, he recommends reading documentation thoroughly before beginning an installation. And be patient: Some platforms might take a while to learn. "It can be overwhelming at first," Thorpe said. "It's not necessarily a five-minute config. They're challenging at times. I would tell someone not to expect this to be the easiest thing they've done in the last week or two."
It's also worth noting that "free" doesn't always mean "open source." You can download and run VMware's vSphere Hypervisor at no cost, for example, but don't expect the keys to the source code. Nor does open source always mean "free" -- such platforms often charge for support or feature upgrades. Others phase out their free versions once you hit certain user or technical milestones.
Got the open source bug? Need a free tool to help squeeze more out of a tight budget? Read on for nine technologies that Thorpe has deployed with positive results in corporate environments.
Any discussion of open source probably needs to start with Linux. The open source operating system provides an alternative choice for desktops, laptops and servers. The Windows/Mac/Linux debate doesn't have to be an all-or-none proposition, either. Thorpe runs both Windows and Linux in his current environment, not an uncommon scenario. The latter OS offers at least one clear advantage: "No licensing fees needed," Thorpe said.
Thorpe's a fan of Nagios' open-source IT monitoring platform for keeping tabs on what's happening on the network. "It's a great network and service monitoring system that allows avenues to monitor items that are not native with the application itself," he said. "You can monitor pretty much anything you want, and simply pass results to Nagios and have it react accordingly." Thorpe further recommended enhancing Nagios with other "puzzle pieces," including SmokePing, Cacti and NetDisco, for "a very comprehensive network monitoring solution."
BackupPC does exactly what it sounds like --- it backs up PCs. In this case, the open-source tool will back up multiple Windows or Linux-based workstations to disk on a server. Deduplication cuts down on storage space and bandwidth needs. "Easy to configure and quick to setup and get started for many of the most common backup needs," Thorpe said.
VMware's vSphere Hypervisor is its starter kit for SMBs and others taking the virtualization plunge for the first time -- ostensibly to get them hooked on the platform as their needs grow. It's not open source, but it's free. "[It allows] plenty of flexibility and usability," Thorpe said. "We are running 20-plus virtual servers on a couple of ESXi physical hosts at the moment. Licensing fees only apply to my subset of Active Directory servers."
Thorpe's been using Request Tracker for a decade or so. The open source tool's an obvious fit for functions like bug tracking or support ticketing, though it can also be deployed in areas such as change management and external customer care.
Thorpe likes the free IT management application offered by Spiceworks for things such as tracking IT inventory. (Note: It is not open source.) But he finds the most value in the community of SMB IT professionals that participate in its forums. "I don't have to sign to up to 10 different forums to go searching for an answer to an issue I'm bumping into," Thorpe said. "I can post it to one area, and I get experts from all over."
Alfresco's content management software is relatively new for Thorpe, but he likes what he sees so far. The open source platform is available both in the cloud and on-premises behind a network firewall -- or both. It's mobile-minded UI looks good on tablets and smartphones, too, as well as PCs. Note that the free version only covers 10 GB of stored data.
The OpenOffice productivity suite offers a free alternative to Microsoft Office or other commercial productivity suites. It supports the usual suspects: Documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, and so forth. Draker uses OpenOffice in its Austin, Texas, branch -- but Microsoft Office in its Burlington, Vt., headquarters. Thorpe noted it can be wise to consider individual or departmental use cases when deciding what to install on employee machines. It might reduce headaches and grumbling to give Microsoft Excel to hardcore spreadsheet jockeys, for instance, while reserving OpenOffice for less intensive users. "[Doing so] works better for everyone all around," he said.
Asterisk is open source software for running a PBX phone system and other communications tools. Thorpe said it had "all the bells and whistles" necessary to power his previous employer's phone system, which was used by 300 people across six offices. "I still buy the phones and servers but there's no licensing on an annual basis," Thorpe said. "There's also nobody to call if you run into a problem, but we can manage that ourselves."