Great Open Source Desktop,Laptops and Servers for your business

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We have been wondering how can we lead small business down a path were they can save money on much needed new hardware and at the same time get their work done. By getting their work done we mean having the basic default software requirements that most businesses would use such as an office suite, minor graphics, publishing applications.

On the hardware side we currently have a company called System76(www.system76.com) which provides most hardware that small businesses may require such as desktops, laptops and servers. They offer pretty good systems at a very low price compare to most major hardware vendors such as Dell, Acer or HP.

They currently have desktops/Nettops starting at $239 called the Meerkat NetTop(http://www.system76.com/product_info.php?cPath=27&products_id=91). For the amount of money this baby is going for it is pretty decent to get all of your work done and it comes with pretty much all the default software you would need to run your business or get some much needed work done. This particular NetTop comes with Ubuntu 10.04(64-Bit) and it also has the Open Office suite installed as default. It also comes with the Ubuntu Software Center by default so that you can download any additional software you may need such as the GIMP/inkscape(Graphics Design) or Scribus(Desktop Publishing) all are equivalents to Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, MS Publisher or Quark Express. We personally use these applications in-house for all of our needs and they work very well if not excellent, they are a total substitute to the above mentioned software packages.

On the portable/laptop side of things System76 also offers some pretty low priced systems that are pretty powerful for most basic business needs. For example there is the Starling Netbook(http://www.system76.com/product_info.php?cPath=28&products_id=105) for $389.00 and the Lemur Ultra thin(http://www.system76.com/product_info.php?cPath=28&products_id=106) for $729.00. These netbooks/laptops are pretty powerful for the price.

On the server side they offer the Eland Pedestal(http://www.system76.com/product_info.php?cPath=29&products_id=62) starting at $798.00 with 8GB of ram, an Intel processors(2.2GHZ Duo Core – Upgradeable) plus 250GB of storage space(upgradeable to 2TB). I say for that amount this server can be more than sufficient for any small business which requires an office server. The one thing about this particular server is that it requires some space as it is a tower and not rack mountable. However for those of you who require rack mounted servers and or have little room to spare you can always get the Jackal 1U(http://www.system76.com/product_info.php?cPath=29&products_id=64) with the same specifications for $898.00. If you require more power there are other offers you small business owners can take advantage of click here to view their line of servers.

As a reminder System76 is not the only vendor which provides a powerful operating system such as Ubuntu; Zareason is also another Hardware provider(http://zareason.com/shop/home.php). Dell offers Ubuntu as well for home users although their offerings is not as vast as System76. On the server side Dell can provide different variations of Linux. The difference once again is the price. System76 beats them in pricing and to some extend in features and component quality.

As a side note we recently performed some server installs of the Ubuntu 10.04 LTS server operating system along with some Ubuntu desktops for one of our clients and we were able to provide them with a complete scalable office solution which compensates for active directory, Microsoft office suites, desktop/web calendar solutions and document sharing. Our setup also included a complete configuration of the MYSQL Database server and the Postfix email/spam assassin server. All of this was configured on System76 hardware which included servers, laptops and desktops. If you are in need of setting up a complete office environment but can’t afford the Microsoft/Dell,HP(Insert Vendor here) high prices then consider using smaller vendors and using reliable open source solutions.

For more information on Ubuntu vendor support please visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_%28operating_system%29#Vendor_support

PHP 5 AND SQL SERVER DRIVERS

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While this is nothing new or big news Microsoft has managed to release PHP 5 drivers for its SQL Server platforms. We have not ran PHP on a Windows server in a very long time and so we decided to give it a shot and honestly it was a total pain in the ass but only because we are not use to the IIS 7 web server. Honestly we like IIS 6 better less complicated and more to the point. Sure IIS 7 is great for those .NET applications but not everything else. For instance we tried to install and run Coldfusion 8 on IIS 7 and again a total pain in the ass while on IIS 6 it installed like a dream.

Back to the main point, PHP runs fairly well on IIS 7 but if you don’t know your way around IIS 7 then you might have some issues with it. The simple PHP scripts we tried worked perfectly well but they were not as efficient as PHP and MySQL 5. In all honesty if your going to use PHP with a database I would stick to the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) it just works better and a ton faster.

But if your a Small Business Server user and want to go the PHP route instead of .NET or ASPX then sure PHP will get the job done on IIS/Windows Server. The best part about it is that the driver is

released under the Apache license.

Straight from their site:

The Microsoft Drivers for PHP for SQL Server are PHP 5 extensions that allows for the reading and writing of SQL Server data from within PHP scripts. The release contains two drivers, the SQLSRV driver and the PDO_SQLSRV driver. The SQLSRV extension provides a procedural interface while the PDO_SQLSRV extension implements PDO for accessing data in all editions of SQL Server 2005 and later (including SQL Azure). These drivers rely on the Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Native Client’s ODBC driver to handle the low-level communication with SQL Server.”

Here is some more information on the driver if you guys are interested in it.

http://sqlsrvphp.codeplex.com/

Getting the Job Done Without Microsoft Office

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When dealing with small business owners one has to walk a fine line between giving them what they want while saving them the much needed cash. They also often ask me if there are products out there that would allow them to either perform the same tasks as you would on Microsoft office 2003, 2007 or 2010. My answer is usually yes depending on the specific needs of the client.

While is true that most businesses use Microsoft Office to create their documents and spreadsheets there are other software products out there which would allow you to create the same types of documents for pretty much nothing and I mean nothing as in paying $0.00 dollars for these alternative office suites.

One such product is Open Office which has about 90% of the capabilities of the 2003, 2007 version of Microsoft office but not 2010. Open Office is free of charge and is available for all major operating systems, Windows, OSX and Ubuntu/Linux(bundled) . Open office allows you to create word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, formulas, databases such as Access and even Visio type diagrams although not as robust.

There is also another free solution from IBM called Lotus Symphony which is based on the Open Office engine with a more refined look in terms of user interface. Lotus Symphony has all the features of Open Office but behaves more like Microsoft Office 2007.

There is also another office suite from SoftMaker software called Office 2010 which is non-free and has some of the features the 2007, 2010 version of Microsoft Office has but at a much more affordable price; You can also save your documents as Open Office format(.odt) which will allow you to move to either platform(Open Office or Lotus Symphony) if you ever need to.

All of these office suites have the capability to save documents to the Microsoft formats and can read them as well although in some cases the conversion of extreme complex Microsoft documents is not 100% but more like 90 – 95 %. The way I see it; If you don’t required all the whiz bang of the 2010 version of Microsoft Office and you want to save some much needed cash or spend that cash on something else such as additional PCs, a Fax or any other piece of software you may require then give either one of the office suites a try since they are free and you have nothing to loose but a bit of time.

As far as the paid versions of SoftMaker Office 2010 they have a trial you can download for 30 days and use all its functionality. SoftMaker has pretty good tech support and can answer any questions you may have, Lotus Symphony does too. If you require tech support or have any questions about Open Office you can find most of your answers here (http://support.openoffice.org/).

You can download each version of the office suites here:

Dell to upgrade its Ubuntu OS

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On our last post we discussed operating system security and how Linux is much better at handling user permissions and its complexities. Well Dell also thinks that Ubuntu/Linux is more safe to use than Windows for regular home user and business users alike.

This page http://www.dell.com/content/topics/segtopic.aspx/ubuntu?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs&~ck=anavml shows you what you can and can’t do with Ubuntu and it also gives you a comparison between Windows and Ubuntu. Looking at the comparison it looks like your average home user can use Ubuntu with no problems. So why aren’t more of you using the system.

Lets see we can think of several reasons:

  • Windows Specific software requirements
  • Don’t know about Ubuntu
  • PC accessories incompatibilities such as web cams, microphones, scanners, wireless routers or digital cameras
  • PC hardware not supported

All of these reasons are invalid with the exception of two. Unless you require Windows specific software then you have an excuse not to switch over or use it in a virtualized environment such as VMWare (http://www.vmware.com/) or Virtual Box (http://www.virtualbox.org/).

With Ubuntu you can use your PC accessories as they have drivers available for them in fact on most of those items we mentioned above you can just plug them in and they work. Unless the item has just been released within the past 48hrs then we say you might have an issue due to the fact that the developers have not had a chance to implement the driver into the operating system or is a very obscure product. But we say is pretty safe to say that your accessories will work say about 80% of the time out of the box.

As far as PC hardware is concern Ubuntu works with most market hardware in fact the darn thing works on a MAC and that is truly an accomplishment; try installing Windows on a MAC hardware and your in for a world of hurt as Windows drivers are not available for MAC hardware components.

Now we think is pretty safe to say that the reason as to why most people don’t try Ubuntu besides the Windows only software requirement is because they don’t know about it. Well if this is the case head on over to the Ubuntu web site (http://www.ubuntu.com) and see what it has to offer. We think that if Dell which is the third largest PC manufacturer in world offers it then it means that is pretty good. Looking at those Dell comparison it makes no sense for home or even business users to spend a ton of money on software for Windows when they can get the operating system and its 20,000 plus catalog of software for free right from the OS it self. This means no need to run out and get and install cd/dvd or download software from some obscure site. We have been using it for a couple of years now and we recommend it to our clients all the time as it is safer and more reliable than Windows.

Operating System Security(the joke is on us)

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Recently with the debacle of the Gentoo Linux distribution falling prey to a Trojan due to negligence on the part of the repositories administrators(see here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/14/linux_game_backdoor/ and here http://www.gentoo.org/security/en/glsa/glsa-201006-21.xml) . The Windows crowd has been spreading all kinds of dis-information or rather some severe FUD(Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) with regards to this event. The truth is that NO operating system is safe be a desktop computer or server running Windows, Linux, MAC OSX or Unix and its variants.

The reason why these folks are getting all crazy about it is because when it comes to Linux this rarely happens. Since Linux advocates put security as the main reason to switch from Windows to Linux now that this has happen they can point the finger back at them and say “uh huh you see I told you Linux security was nonsense”. The absolute truth is that Linux is safer than Windows by leaps and bounds due to the nature of how the Linux OS is built. The Linux OS is built with multi-user from the ground up meaning that every user runs in its own separate space within the system with its own set of processes and have no root or administrative access to critical system processes. Which means that if a particular user were to ever get an infected file (virus) or a trojan or any other malware it would only live within that particular user space and can’t affect anything else. Windows on the other hand was not built this way and no matter how many versions of it they release they are still not built that way. Yes they now have a UAC (User Account Control http://www.neowin.net/news/main/09/01/07/windows-7-whats-up-with-the-uac) but this is still not built the same as most Linux distributions are. The Windows system relies on a central registry so if something goes wrong with one part of the system it most likely affects the rest of the system. So these folks apparently either don’t or can’t comprehend this or they just turn a deaf ear to it; which is fine but then they should not get upset when their systems get compromised and its all over the news.

When using any OS one should make sure that secure practices are in place to install software and that these softwares are coming from a reputable vendor. In the case of a Windows system a Network Administrator should make sure that all the software has been signed by the vendor with a digital certificate and that Microsoft has verified such said certificate. On the Desktop side for home user this is not as easy as most home users have no clue as to what this is. So they just download everything and anything that has an .MSI or .EXE extension which is the reason why they get all kinds of malware and viruses and soon their PCs become part of Botnets (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botnet).

On the Linux side software is distributed through repositories which are verified by the company who distributes the OS such as Ubuntu and Canonical. Canonical makes sure that all their software in their repositories are verified and that they have a GPG signature(http://www.gnupg.org/). Which means that all the software distributed on the repositories are safe and can be installed. Now if a user decides to go outside of this repository then it is up to the user to make sure that the software is reputable and that it too has a digital signature and it can be verified. And the same thing can be said for MAC users as well. Although we are not 100% sure if MAC OSX users actually have repositories or even have digital signatures for their software. But Apple applies this concept to the iPhone/iTunes through their application store.

The best thing to do for Windows users is to install a good anti-virus and software that can check for rootkits within the system (What is a rootkit? See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rootkit). You can also set strong passwords for your user(s) accounts and try to be very careful where you download software from. In the case of web infections this is a tough one to deal with; our best advice is to use FireFox or Google Chrome instead of Internet Explorer regardless of the stupid commercials Microsoft has been displaying on TV about IE.  It is not safe no matter what they say. And keep your system up to date with the latest software. Although this can be a bit tricky as Microsoft can sometimes break your system on patch Tuesday so here you take your chances.

For Linux folks they have wrote a good article here on ZDNET (http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/five-tips-for-improving-linux-security/35798).

MAC OSX users pay close attention to Apple updates and install them as soon as they are available.

Remember if you are going to go outside of a trusted software vendor or repositories please make sure you can verify who they are.

Google Sites a good way to start a small business web site

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Here at SBN we are always looking for ways to get small business owners on to the web be it a one man show or a small business with 5-10 people. We have been exploring some services from Google which can provide a small business some way to get their business presence on to the web. Google Sites is such a tool; It is basically FREE for those of you whom are on a budget and need site up and running fairly quickly.

Google Sites

Benefits

Google Sites offers a variety of templates to easily build your site and get it on-line. This service also allows you to make it public or private and it can integrate with Google Docs(http://docs.google.com) to share information across your entire business(meaning you can allow documents to be shared or edited by other people). You can also access all the information from home since the service is cloud based; which means you wont have to worry about your home PC or office PC crashing as all your documents will be stored on-line. It also gives you statistical data on the site’s recent activity.

The site service also allows you to access the Google Web masters tools(http://www.google.com/webmasters/) which gives you access to on-line marketing tools such as Google Ad words and Ad Sense. This can be beneficial for small businesses since it gives them a way to quickly advertise a product or a service.

Site Templates

The service offers tons of customized templates for you to use such as:

These are only a few of the templates which you can use. Google also offers a premier version on the service which allows you access to customize the sites even further. However if you don’t mind using the templates then the free service is just fine until you can get your business off the ground. We think that this service can benefit any starting business as it cuts the cost of having to get web hosting, hired a web designer or buy an office suite. Speaking of office suite this service has an excellent editor tool which behaves very much like your typical word processor and can allow you to quickly add different pages/sections to your site all without having to write any complex code, but if you do require to edit HTML code you can.

You can also use an existing domain for your google sites, which means that you wont have to just use sites.google.com/your company name but you can actually use http://www.yourcompanyname.com

You can take a look at a quick video introduction here: http://www.google.com/sites/help/intl/en/overview.html

Here are some screenshots of what the administration tools look like.

Now by no means are we saying that you should not use a good web design agency or web designer/developer not at all. But what we are saying is that when on a tight budget and the need to quickly put your business on the web arises then this is surely the way to go without too much of a hassle. The one thing you will have to do is create a Google account. But by creating one you will also get access to tons of tools that can and will benefit your business.

Google Chrome Web Browser Version 6

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The new version of Google Chrome web browser has been released (http://www.google.com/chrome/intl/en/more/index.html). This new version uses the WebKit engine (http://webkit.org/) to render its HTML/CSS and JavaScript pages. It also boosts support for lots of CSS3 features such as the ones found here (http://tinyurl.com/35lupzz) plus lots of HTML5 features as well. The browser also lets you import your Fire Fox bookmarks and it allows you to sync your bookmarks across PCs which have the Google Chrome browser already installed(very cool feature).

Google Chrome Start Page extesion

Speed

The one thing that has really impressed us about the browser is its speed. We have tested the browser across several operating system such as Windows(XP,7), Mac OSX and Ubuntu 10.04 and it is fast. Very quick to start up and loading the actual web sites. The only other web browser out there that is faster than Google Chrome is Opera 10.10(http://www.opera.com/browser/). This new version also features a faster JavaScript engine which makes JavaScript driven applications to perform much faster.

Security

In terms of security the browser is very solid just like Fire Fox 3.x(http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/personal.html). It actually warns you if you have stumbled into a web site which could harm your PC. This however does not mean you should throw away your anti-virus software specially if you are on a Windows PC(regardless of the version your are running).

Google Chrome Feedly page

Extensions

In this area just like Fire Fox the browser shines as it already has tons of extensions for you to choose from and they work extremely well. You can also find most extensions which are available for Fire Fox such as Feedly or Pixlr Grabber. In terms of developing extensions Chrome makes it easy to do so, you can take a look at this article here (http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/write-chrome-extension/).

Conclusion

In our opinion if you have not tried Google Chrome you should for three reasons.

  1. Faster web browsing experience
  2. Better security
  3. Lots of extensions to choose from.

If you are currently running Internet Explorer (6,7 or 8 ) and you don’t necessarily need it for any specific web applications then we say dump it like your life depends on it as it lacks support for various CSS 2.1, CSS 3 and HTML 5 features which are rapidly being deployed to new web sites. On this merit alone Internet Explorer should be dropped like a bad habit (not to mention security issues).

If you are running the latest version of Opera or Fire Fox then you should be OK as both of these browsers keep adding more CSS 3/HTML 5 functionalities. But if your adventurous then give Google Chrome a shot you just might like it. Take a look at some of the capabilities of Google Chrome here http://www.chromeexperiments.com/ and you can download it here http://www.google.com/chrome?hl=en.

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