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Smaller businesses take another look at open source

Aided by VARs and software certification firms like SpikeSource, smaller businesses are keeping an open mind about open source software for possible big rewards.

A surge in IT spending among small and medium-sized businesses is raising hopes among freeware advocates that a...

flurry of new open source products will spur the corporate use of Linux.

Value-added resellers and integrators are jumping on board the open source bandwagon. Prompting the move are companies like SpikeSource Inc. and its channel partners. Based in Redwood, Calif., SpikeSource certifies commercial software for use in open source environments and provides free testing and certification for open source projects. The company said it is taking on the task of educating users about the benefits of open source to help dispel perceptions that still linger about applications some still consider unreliable, unsupported or risky.

And the timing of these open source introductions couldn't be better, especially among small and medium-sized businesses, which are defined as having fewer than 1,000 employees.

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Research firms like Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research are touting numbers that show this market representing almost 50% of U.S. IT spending. More than 55% of all firms this size in the U.S. have increased their IT spending over the past year, and spending among these businesses has surpassed the large enterprise companies of more than 1,000 employees by a ratio of almost 2:1, Forrester said.

Numbers like these have open source advocates and VARs eager to get into the space because for many small to medium-sized businesses, their smaller IT budgets and limited developer resources can make high-cost, license-ridden proprietary options a tough pill to swallow.

One such VAR that can already attest to the desire of smaller businesses to get hands-on experience with open source is Cupertino, Calif.-based Initsoft Inc. Salim Lakhani, managing directing for Initsoft, said that in the not-so-distant past he would purposefully avoid mentioning open source software to his customers, but today that attitude has changed dramatically.

"Every time I mentioned [open source] it was like opening a can of worms," said Lakhani, who has been developing Web apps and portals at Initsoft since 1995. "But now more and more customers are aware of it, and from their perspective it is more than just about price."

Lakhani said his customers today are interested in avoiding licensing fees and are warm to the idea that the open source communities surrounding successful projects can address security vulnerabilities faster than a proprietary company, where they could potentially be hidden from users.

But not all VARs are as savvy or as fortunate with open source as Initsoft, said Michael Goulde, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Goulde said some VARs still need to educate themselves about open source to capitalize on rising demand.

"VARs are still coming to understand the nature of the open source model," he said. "They have a whole bunch of this free software, but they are still coming to terms with the task of taking advantage of that with customers. [VARs] already understand and have shipped Linux, but in a larger sense with the rest of the [open source] stack less is known to them."

If the VARs can get their arms around open source, however, Goulde said there is enormous potential, especially with technologies like the open source PHP scripting language. By capitalizing on PHP, which makes up one corner of the LAMP stack -- Linux, Apache for the Web server, MySQL for the database, and PHP/Python/Perl -- Goulde said that VARs and could provide small and medium-sized businesses with a completely open source option that complements their smaller budgets.

SpikeSource too is doing its part to promote certified open source software stacks within this community. Just last week, the company announced the addition of a cadre of 15 new channel partners to sell its integrated and supported open source application stacks to this market segment.

The expansion is part of SpikeSource's Spike Solution Provider Program, which provides packaging, marketing, sales and technical support to VARs and systems integrators.

Lakhani said VARs appreciate companies like SpikeSource because it allows them to not worry about the minutia. "We just have to build the applications, and then we are assured by SpikeSource that the apps are maintained and running," he said.

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