GNU and You: Open Source Software from a Business Perspective

If you’ve been paying attention to the computer world for the past 10+ years, by no doubt you have heard about Linux.  For those who don’t know, Linux is an operating system that has put a small dent into the Microsoft stranglehold of desktop operating systems, and drove a massive nail into the server market.  Linux is an open-source operating system.  The source code for Linux, and a majority of the distributions (variants) of Linux, are open for anyone to view, and for anyone to make modifications to the code to suit their needs.

Now what does this mean for you?  I’m not expecting all of you to go out there and learn C++, Python, or any of the assorted languages you can use to write a program.  However, thanks to the GNU Public License, there are many software options for you at no charge that rival software made by large corporations.

GNU’s Not Unix

GNU (Guh-Noo), in its true nerd fashion, is a recursive name.  It stands for “GNU’s Not Unix”.  One of the original operation systems, Unix, was a powerful operating system that was widely used throughout universities and corporations.  One man, Richard Stallman, began the GNU project because he believed so strongly in open source software that he thought that software should be open and available to everyone.  In his quest to create a completely open source operating system, he created his own versions of many of the programs that Unix used to perform many of its functions.  Before he could create the kernel (the software that manages resources on the system) a man named Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel which could use the GNU programs to complement it.  In short, a majority of the Linux distributions are technically GNU/Linux systems which run thanks to both of these men, and the hundreds of contributors to both projects.  Linux is released under the GPL which is the GNU Public License which allows for free distribution of the program and the source code, and open modification.

What does the GNU Project have to do with my business?

More often than not, web servers typically are running some variant of Linux which provides a few benefits to not only the web host itself, but to you as the client.  Since Linux is a free operating system, you immediately negate the cost of having to run a costly Windows server and the upkeep that comes along with it.  The benefit to this is not only the obvious cost, but the fact that the community behind the software is huge.  Thousands of people submit bugs (and updates!) to the Linux kernel, and Apache, the web server typically used on Linux servers.

Not only is the operating system running your server open source, but if your site is written in PHP, yup, that’s another piece of open source software.  PHP is a powerful language that can process dynamic pages based on elements from a submitted form, user information (like location) or information from a database.  Instead of updating your page by editing the HTML, you can have a tool written for you, a CMS (Content Management System) that will let you quickly update a post or news article on your site.  Since your data would be stored in a database and not hard-coded into the page, if you choose to change your site design, or want to generate an RSS feed, then it’s very easy to make modifications.

Some Final Words…

Open source software is huge.  Some of the best and most powerful programs are open source, whether you know it or not.  A prime example of this is the now leader in the browser wars, Mozilla Firefox.  This time I talked about open source software in the server environment, but next time I’ll let you in on some open source software that you can use in your desktop environment to cut costs so you don’t break the budget on your business.  So if by chance you do have some programming background, find an open source project and start submitting bugs or fixes, but if you don’t…stay tuned and I’ll show you how you can support the open source movement.