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The ultimate Linux starter kit for small business

Katherine Noyes and Dietrich Schmitz | March 14, 2013
Linux machines can save your business cold, hard cash. Here's how to pick the best OS and apps for yourself, your workers, and your IT pros.

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 those 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 find 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 form 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 offers paid support. For your SMB, 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 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 it, you'll have lost nothing. If you love it, however, then go ahead and install.

Make yourself at home

So you've found and installed a Linux distribution you like. What now? Play around on the desktop to make it comfortable. Set your preferences, choose wallpaper, and check out the preloaded apps. Most every Linux distro comes with a default desktop environment, which determines the look and feel of pretty much everything you see. Most offer alternate options as well. If you don't like your default look and feel, you can swap in numerous others.

 

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