The ultimate Linux starter kit for small business

Microsoft did its best to usher in a new era of desktop computing with the launch of Windows 8, but many businesses and individuals are opting out. Linux-based operating systems, meanwhile, present an increasingly compelling alternative. Benefits include tougher security and superior customization—not to mention that Linux is usually free.

If you're ready to make the leap to desktop Linux, this guide will show you where to begin and how to choose the right OS and software for your small business. With advice on everything from choosing your Linux distribution and desktop software to easing the transition, we'll help you get started on the right foot.

How to choose Linux for your desktop

Flickr: tshik2styleFlickr: tshik2
The Linux experience is far from dry. Here's one Gentoo Linux desktop.

There are numerous flavors, or "distributions," of Linux, each offering a distinct experience for a particular taste or purpose. All are based on the Linux kernel, which is its core OS code. On top of that kernel, distributions may add different desktop environments, applications, and features.

Ubuntu and Linux Mint are two of the more popular contenders. But a quick glance at DistroWatch, which keeps tabs on most distributions, shows just how vast the pool of choices is. Most distros, as they're called, are easily customizable, whether with industry-specific apps and modules or varied graphical interfaces. That said, the more your base Linux package delivers what you want, the less time you'll spend tweaking it.

How do you pick the right distro? An online chooser such as this one is a good place to start. For a more complete consideration, break down the decision in terms of what you have and what you need. On the “what you have” side, there are three primary considerations for business users: the niche you're in, the hardware you're using, and the Linux skills your staff has.

Mint is a popular flavor of Linux with a friendly-looking desktop.

Your niche: Some Linux distributions focus very narrowly on particular industries. Scientific Linux is produced by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Another niche example is EduBuntu, a variation of Canonical's Ubuntu Linux tailored for classrooms and schools.

Your hardware: As touchscreen features are being incorporated within OSs, such as Windows 8 and Ubuntu Linux, your hardware can make a big difference. Linux has always been an excellent choice for less-than-cutting-edge hardware. If your PCs are resource-limited, then consider a lightweight distro such as Puppy Linux, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Bodhi, or Damn Small Linux.

Your skills: Have you or your employees ever used Linux before? If not, choose a distribution that's friendly for beginners, such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS, Zorin OS, or the new Linux Lite. Distributions like Gentoo and Slackware, on the other hand, are probably best for users with more experience. Numerous distros fall somewhere in between.

With so many varieties out there, how can you choose the best OS?

As for the “what you need” side of the equation, there are three key considerations: application support, mobile support, and user support—i.e., employee hand-holding.

Must-have software: Is there software your business just can't do without, such as Microsoft Office? For most, an excellent open-source equivalent is probably already available in the Linux world's equivalent of an app store, for nearly any distro. Just in case, though, check the offerings before you pick a distro.

OSalt lists open-source alternatives to popular proprietary software. If you can't locate what you want, find out if the proprietary app you rely on has already been made to run on the Linux flavor you're considering. You can even run Windows apps on Linux with help from Wine or CrossOver Linux.

Mobile support: If your business relies heavily on mobile devices, pick a distro and apps that play well with them, which generally means one of the bigger names. The Ubuntu One cloud storage offering for Ubuntu Linux, for instance, offers clients for both Android and iOS. In the realm of desktop applications, GnuCash offers an Android app, while LibreOffice offers one that enables remote presentations.

User support: How much hand-holding would you like for the Linux transition? The majority of the big Linux distributions offer paid support. For your small or medium-size business, however, it depends on the skills you have in-house, and how much effort you can expend to resolve issues that might come up. Virtually every Linux distro has an active online community of developers and users, so check out the forums for a sense of the kind of help they offer.

Finally, before committing to a desktop Linux distro, take a commitment-free test-drive, such as via Live CD or Live USB. That way, even if you decide against the OS, you'll have lost nothing. If you love it, however, then go ahead and install.

Next page: Explore your OS, and pick the best software...

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