The hidden roadblock - What is stopping SMB adoption of GNU/Linux?

The hidden roadblock - What is stopping SMB adoption of GNU/Linux?

When considering moving a Small to Mid-size Business (SMB) client over to GNU/Linux or talking to someone who is considering the same, there frequently is a “but” somewhere during the process. The hesitation is one that is rarely talked about, or one that I have rarely heard; the lack of specialized applications from Independent Software Vendors (ISVs).

According to the Small Business Administration, small firms in the U.S., those with fewer than 500 employees, represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms. There is a lot of business diversity, each with its own IT needs. Part of those needs are industry specific software, which is predominately Windows based.

Nearly every industry has software unique to itself, along with cross industry applications. A brief list of industries with industry specific software include:

  • Education
  • Banking
  • Accounting
  • Real Estate
  • Property Management
  • Construction
  • Medical
  • Civil Engineering
  • Auto Body Repair

Pair industry specific software to cross industry software and there is more Windows based tie in. Examples of cross industry software include:

  • Fleet Maintenance
  • Accounting
  • Inventory
  • Business Plans
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Employee Scheduling
  • Facility Scheduling
  • Customer Relationship Management

These examples don’t even begin to touch the tip of the software iceberg. The intention here is to consider the software that companies use every day, software that is normally not thought of. Cross industry software can also become specific. Accounting software, though similar between companies, can target certain markets. For example accounting and inventory software for jewelry retailers, art galleries and janitorial enterprises. Some ISV’s have separate versions of the same accounting application, each targeted at a different segment.

With the advent of the internet and web based applications, businesses are transitioning from platform specific applications to platform neutral applications. That would be the ideal, but it is sometimes not easily attained. Many service providers write their web applications for non-standards based browsers, as you are likely guessing, Internet Explorer, preventing platform agnostic nirvana. While many applications are becoming web based, with SMB’s, the death of client-server computing has been greatly exaggerated.

Mobile computing has small business benefits, which also includes industry unique software. Mobile devices have installable applications, however, there is often a Windows based component that synchronizes with the mobile version. Whether the mobile device collects data and uploads to a database, or an application like a mind mapper that synchronizes with a client application, often it is a Windows based application.

Windows has an ecosystem built up over several years of SMB use. Windows based PC’s are a standard tool for nearly all SMB’s, or the suppliers and services that support SMB’s. What GNU/Linux in the SMB market is lacking is a significant ecosystem of applications. There are tools to provide a method of running Windows based applications, but it is doubtful that ISV’s will support their applications in this manner. An ecosystem needs to be nourished on its own and not fed off of another. As more and more business are able to transition to GNU/Linux based networks, this ecosystem will have the means of becoming self sufficient. Each birth of a new GNU/Linux based, industry specific, application will enable build up of the GNU/Linux SMB ecosystem.

Accounting is one area in which there is a large GNU/Linux presence. With accounting as an entry, as well as standard office applications like and Firefox the GNU/Linux application ecosystem is on firm ground. What’s left is to encourage this ecosystem to flourish and to educate SMB’s and ISV’s on the benefits of GNU/Linux based networks for their business. Surely, both will be hesitant to change applications and development platforms, so there is no easy road ahead. Platform transition is not a trivial pursuit, but as more applications are available on GNU/Linux, it is visible on the horizon.



undefined's picture
Submitted by undefined on

this is not authoritative, as i haven't yet quit my day job and become an SMB consultant, but just an idea (as i think through future business strategies). but this is also personal as we have a windows-only financial application in a household that only has one windows hardware-install (2 linux servers & 1 linux desktop vs 1 windows 8-year-old ailing laptop).

use windows and a virtualization technology as an abstraction layer for running those windows-only, industry-specific applications on linux. once linux gains enough installations, the software market will accomodate it; if not, virtualization should continue to work. (my aforementioned 10-year-old financial application has finally been ported to java, presumably to accomodate the mac os 10 market, and though not supported, it runs on linux. i just don't want to purchase the newer version when the old version works and i have a windows license.)

if you buy a photo printer, expect to use glossy paper and expensive ink. if you buy a sports car, expect to use high-octance gasoline. if you need a niche application, expect to cater to its quirks, including requiring windows. but just as you don't have to change homes to park your sports car, or add on a new room to your house for your photo printer, now thanks to virtualization a single application shouldn't dictate your OS.

why linux on the desktop for everyday use? it provides all the basic productivity apps and can be managed on an SMB's shoe-string budget by a part-time admin or consultant.

what's wrong with windows on the desktop? unless continuously cared for by enterprise software (antivirus, antiadware, software updates, firewall, etc) and enterprise IT staff, all at enterprise prices, your SMB office ends up looking like the average home computer multiplied by ten, twenty, or 100. but if a mandatory business application requires it, then run windows in a VM.

i recently experienced administrating windows when creating and maintaining windows 2000 and windows xp VM images (for experimenting with open-source cross-platform technologies, development environments, & applications on windows). it was painful. there are tools available (SMS, WSUS, etc), but IMHO out of the reach of the SMB market (technically or financially).

but who cares about administrating/maintaining a windows installation when it resides within a VM and is only ever used in conjuction with that particular application. niche financial applications aren't usually a vector for viruses. CRMs aren't usually a vector for adware. some of these applications don't even require a network connection, allowing the windows VM image to run quite contained/isolated.

FOSS is making software a commodity, so unless there is a specific need (windows-only industry-specific software, laptop hardware, etc), it works well enough. most people don't get religious about office supplies (paper, pencils, pens, paper clips), unless they have a specific need, and software should be the same.

is virtualization the windows-only application cure-all? no. there are the applications that require unique hardware that the VM can't emulate/interface. there's the older hardware that ran the application acceptably, but not the application and VM. there are the offices where everybody has a laptop, and linux doesn't reliably suspend or hibernate any of them. but worse yet are the users that will resist change (darn humans! ;-). maybe the compromise is the other way around: run windows and the one application on the hardware and everything else in a linux VM.

considered carefully for each circumstance, i think virtualization and interoperability will allow linux (and FOSS in general) to become a reality for SMBs, bringing with it a lower TCO.

Bradley  Williams's picture
Submitted by Bradley Williams (not verified) on

A lot of ISVs actually have cross platform capable software and just don't know it. Example of this is an education accounting system a local ISV maintains and support. They swear that system only works on SCO Unix, and only works with a Windows client. After researching how they develop this software, the IDE actually supports not just SCO Unix, but just about every *nix available plus Windows Servers, and the Client is actually written in a C IDE that supports the ISO C standard. Which means with little or no changes would support other *nix environments. The point is a lot of ISVs that are in fact themselves SMBs, actually customize applications from larger ISVs. In my home state (the second poorest in the US) we have some very large developers, but far more ISVs that are SMBs. These people will chase every penny made available to them. These smaller developers will change quicker than any body else.

Joshua B's picture
Submitted by Joshua B (not verified) on

By "Qualified", I mean a) Willing to accept Open Source solutions, and b) able to support said solutions, and c) Willing to consider the tactical implications of such a move.

I spoke with a small business consultant a while back about this issue. He said that he'd love to support more pervasive use of Open Source (he already prescribes OpenOffice), but there are a few problems:

a) Similar to what the article mentions above, there are lots of applications based on Microsoft Office that can't run on Linux;

b) What the article mentions;

c) He doesn't have enough Linux expertise to feel comfortable recommending these solutions, and doesn't have enough time to learn;

d) If he was comfortable, there's the "hit by a bus" syndrome - if he installs Linux and gets hit by a bus, there's nobody else in his geographical location that knows Linux and can take over. Currently, he can take a week off for vacation and subcontract his tasks (there's an informal network of consultants in his area so they all do this)...

Author information

Ken Leyba's picture


Ken has been working in the IT field since the early 80's, first as a hardware tech whose oscilloscope was always by his side, and currently as a system administrator. Supporting both Windows and Linux, Windows keeps him consistently busy while Linux keeps his job fun.