Run Your Business on Open Source and Freeware Software…Yes You Can

Open source software is essentially free software developed by volunteers that can be used for most personal and business needs.  Freeware is software made by corporations or individuals that is distributed for free and usually has limited features compared to the full featured premium versions.  The majority of small businesses don’t have very complicated needs when it comes to software and just need applications for email, browsing the web, a productivity suite for creating documents, charts, presentations, and anti-virus/malware software.  There are open source applications for all of these tasks.  There are even open source operating systems as well which have become incredibly easy to use and maintain lately.  Lets take a look at some of the open source and freeware options out there as there are an ever increasing amount of programs to choose from.

Operating System:
If I was starting a new small business I would use the free linux operating system, “Ubuntu“.  Ubuntu is well known in the open source world, has a large following, a huge support community behind it, comes with a bunch of open source software already installed out of the box and will even start showing up in smart phones soon.  Over the years Ubuntu and linux in general have really developed into feature rich alternatives to Windows and Macintosh.  Gone are the days of linux being relegated to the uber nerds with their command line interface, now most flavors of linux come with at least a basic GUI (Graphical User Interface) based interface.  Ubuntu is really easy to use, install and extremely customizable, I bet with the proper theme applied I could fool you into thinking you were sitting at a PC or a Mac.  Furthermore, Ubuntu has a great community of extremely helpful members behind it and 9 out of 10 times you can most likely find a solution to any problems you encounter through the “Google it” algorithm as you would with a PC or a Mac.

Email Client:
There are a ridiculous plethora of open source email clients out there but I would recommend Thunderbird because it is a well supported open source project ran by the global non-profit, Mozilla, the same folks that made the Firefox browser.  Thunderbird is really easy to use and setup.  If you are familiar with Microsoft Outlook then you will be able to access your emails, address book and calendar in a similar manner.

My favorite browser is Google’s Chrome browser, its free, super slick, can be customized to your hearts content, has a bunch of applications that plug into it and even has its own task manager built in so you can put the smack down on out of control processes.  If you have never used Chrome before, then give it a chance.  If you use a bunch of legacy websites written specifically for old versions of Internet Explorer then Chrome might not cut it as Chrome can have compatibility issues with really old IE code.  Lets face it, most of the web, at one point, was developed primarily for Internet Explorer which has its proprietary/interesting ways of rendering html and you may be forced to use IE but this is rare.  Chrome is really a great browser, I can’t say that enough.

Productivity Suite:
Their are alternatives to Microsoft Office for creating documents, charts, presentations, etc.  OpenOffice is a great open source productivity suite that really gives MS Office a run for its money.  OpenOffice is even bundled with the Ubuntu operating system and is available for Windows and Mac as well.  OpenOffice is a suite of product offerings similar to MS Office and includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation manager, and a drawing program.  You can even open, edit and save MS Office documents with OpenOffice.  There really is no need to shell out money for MS Office when there is a free alternative out there that is easy to use.

Anti-Virus & Malware:
AVG Free is one of the best anti-virus applications I have used.  Its relatively lightweight compared to competitors, fast, easy to use, industry tested and integrates with email clients and browsers.  I have been running AVG Free for over 5 years now and have not been knocked out by a virus yet, knock on wood.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware is a great anti-malware application and is highly rated on tech websites as one of the best by both editors and users.  Its easy to use, install, maintain and provides a great level of malware protection for the average user with little fuss.


Sound Editing:
Audacity is great sound editor and have used it many times in the past for personal projects.  If you have used other sound editing applications then you should feel at home with Audacity.  Even if you are a sound editing newbie you should be able to learn this application fairly quickly.

Image Editing:
Yes there is even open source image editing software out there that can hold its own against Photoshop allowing for layers, filters and effects.  GIMP is an awesome free image editor that has a big learning curve, just as with Photoshop but if you are familiar with Photoshop then you should be able to figure GIMP out relatively quickly.

Data Visualization:
If you need to add some flare to your boring spreadsheet or want to move beyond the primitive pie chart then its time for you to check out Tableau Public.  Tableau Public allows you to take a raw data set like a spreadsheet and turn it into a compelling visual.  Tableau Public is really just great fun to use once you get the hang of it.  If you are already familiar with the concepts of pivot tables and pivot charts then you will be creating wicked, awesome data visualizations that will knock the socks off of your clients, peers and management in no time.

There are literally thousands of other open source and freeware applications out there ranging from common place word processors to obscure network analyzers.  Ubuntu is a great introduction to the world of open source because it comes pre-loaded with a ton of free software, has a familiar interface and is easy to use.  Save yourself some money this year and try open source and freeware software in your business today.



The IT Factor

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Most of my posts lately have centered on the design of agricultural and biological systems and have not had a technological focus but this has been by design, no pun intended.  Personally, this has been a great exercise for me to hone my thought process and further create the identity of my own personal design methodology which calls upon a multitude of disciplines.  I believe that the design philosophy and methodologies that I have laid out in my previous posts have set the groundwork for future discussions about the fundamentals of design, see my previous post “What is Design?“.

How can design methodologies from other disciplines relate to designing IT/IS systems?  Simple.  Since I have defined and referred to design in my previous posts as,

the management of energy in a system

The energy present in a system can be manifested in different forms.  When discussing business, the energy of a system can be thought of as the resources available such as cash flow, revenue, market share, etc and restricting elements such as capital expenditures, operational expenditures, liabilities, etc., all of which are metrics and key indicators for the health of a business system.  Good design will manage these different resources and restricting elements effectively and efficiently by planning with the idea of “source” and “sink” in mind.  Maximizing inputs into the system and minimizing losses out of the system.

When planning to meet the technology needs and desires of a small business or even an enterprise a good IT/IS system design will consider the business needs along with the resources and restricting elements at play.  IT/IS systems are in place to support the ever changing technological needs of a business.  Good design can reduce costs, power consumption, capital expenditure, man hours, staffing requirements, etc. just by being thoughtful of the different design elements such as, resources and restricting elements, and the interactions between them.

If we can find connections between our design elements we can create robustness, see my previous post “Missed Connections“.  Robustness in a business IT/IS system can take different forms depending on budget allocation.  For example, a business with unlimited amounts of money could create the most robust, highly available, fault tolerant, disaster recoverable system ever created by investing in many, many, many dedicated data centers located all throughout the world but such robustness is overkill and wasteful in so many ways.  The needs, abilities and available resources at play in a business system need to be managed thoughtfully, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

I believe that it is most beneficial for a business to focus primarily on their core business and partner with or outsource/in-source ancillary business functions to specialists.  Email, data archiving and telephony functions are examples of specialties that can easily be managed by a trusted partner.  By focusing on the core business processes you are creating a highly efficient design that is tailored to your individual business ecosystem and reduces the amount of internal resources needed to support the system.  By working with a trusted partner you can focus on your core business and scale as necessary and you can always internalize the duties of a trusted partner in the future if it makes sense to.

If you are a small business do you really need a dedicated IT department to manage your systems?  Probably not, depending on needs.  I think that most businesses under 100 employees do not require a dedicated email solution such as Microsoft Exchange, gmail for business seems like a great alternative compared to having dedicated hardware, software and staff to run the email system.  Also by focusing on the core functions a business can really specialize and zero in on their target market instead of being distracted by ancillary business tasks.  We want to leverage our own business strengths and minimize our weaknesses by working with trusted specialized partners who can fill the gaps and work with us until the size of the business demands internalizing the specialized needs.  Take a phased approach and don’t go all in from the get go, its important to create sustainable design and manage resources effectively.  Crawl.  Walk.  Run.

Image: Map of the Internet 2005

Missed Connections


Just as we may have Craigslist missed connection moments in our lives that equate to missed opportunities the same holds true for designs in the real world.  By creating connections between our different design elements we add robustness to our system and provide a framework for good design by making careful, and thoughtful decisions about how to manage the flow of energy in the system, see my previous post “What is Design?“.  When connections between design elements are missed and not put in place they reduce the potential efficiency and robustness of a system.

missed connection 1The image you see to your left is of my local neighborhood school’s drainage ditch.  To me this is really an example of a missed connection between design elements.  The drainage ditch is a beautiful concrete structure that uses gravity to move rain overflow so that the school grounds don’t become flooded and muddy.  This is a great design function but it is not connected to another design element and serves only one singular purpose.  Creating robustness in systems comes from using design elements that serve multiple purposes.  The water that flows down the drainage ditch goes into the sewers instead of being recycled and sent back into the school grounds system.  The rain runoff could be directed to a giant rain barrel or a water cistern and be used to irrigate the school grounds or for any non-potable water needs.  Furthermore, if this drainage ditch could be connected to the school’s roof gutter system then even further water harvesting is possible.

Consider that,

a 1 square-foot section of roof has the potential to collect 0.5 gallon of water for every 1 inch of rain that falls on it

Apply this formula to the average home’s roof which is about 2,000 square-feet over a period of a year which recieved 12 inches of rain and that will produce 12,000 gallons of water.  Now consider that a school will have a lot more more roof than an average home, AT LEAST 10 times more, and we are in the ballpark of 120,000 gallons of water per year that could be harvested just from rain runoff without any additional input of energy into the system.  Consider even further that these gains could be applied across an entire school system.  For example, the Milwaukee Public School System, which is comprised of 178 schools, has over 86 million square feet of roof when combined.  That would equate to 43 million gallons of water, over 65 olympic size swimming pools, for every 1 inch of rain.

That is an amazing amount of water that could be put to use in so many productive ways instead of being lost down the drain.  All that water could be used to irrigate a food forest on the school grounds or recycled back into the community at large, see my previous post “Paradise Lost” for a discussion on food forests.  These design missed connections are all around us and you may be surprised what you find when you start looking.  Missed connections are opportunities to rectify inefficient design elements and are reminders of how we must stay vigilant and open minded as we seek design nirvana.

Image top: frontpage

Image middle:  My local neighborhood school’s drainage ditch

Paradise Lost


The typical American suburb is a “Paradise Lost” indeed.  It is sort of a tragedy that as Americans we spend so much time, effort and resources on maintaining our lawns.  Lawns are unproductive members of nearly every suburban neighborhood and require valuable resources such as water to hydrate and gasoline to mow.  Furthermore, lawns require poisons such as fertilizers and pesticides to maintain these resource demanding systems that are essentially suburban deserts and hallmarks of inefficient, energy intensive design.

I get that lawns and suburbs are entangled in the American Psyche and moving away from them may be difficult because it requires change and change requires moving away from the comfortable and familiar status quo.  However, the benefits of moving to a much more efficient system greatly outweigh the costs of doing so.

Personally I view America’s lawns as an opportunity to create productive members of our communities.  Imagine that instead of rows of monotonous green lawns that don’t contribute anything to the community that we replace these suburban deserts with productive food forests.  Food forests are essentially gardens composed of a large variety of productive edibles from potatoes to herbs to exotic lychee fruit trees and even chickens, yes chickens.

You may be thinking that a food forest would require so much more time, energy and resources to maintain than a typical lawn but this is not necessarily true, depending on how you design your garden.  There is a whole wealth of knowledge out there on the internet on how to create productive food forests in your front lawn and it’s really not “rocket surgery”.  Efficient and effective design comes from careful consideration of how to manage energy within the system, see my previous post “What is Design?” for a further explanation of this.  I highly recommend Sepp Holzer’s book “Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening–With information on mushroom cultivation, sowing a … ways to keep livestock, and more…” for more information on creating sustainable food forests.

Food forests are possible in the suburbs.  In fact, I have noticed that some of my neighbors have started to plant gardens in their front yards instead of lawns and I commend them for that.  I am not personally a homeowner and I know how hypocritical my comments may come off considering that I am not practicing what I preach but I hope my thoughts serve to inspire rather than condemn.  I am currently an apartment dweller and that only affords me a small amount of space for a garden but I try to plant where I can and aspire to have my own farm someday.

How awesome would it be if we all had a food forest in our front yard?  It would be an opportunity to increase our intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, to reduce our carbon footprint by not having to buy the majority of our food from the supermarket which trucks it in, to increase the aesthetics of our communities with lush food-scapes and the opportunity to move to a more efficient and productive system.  Remember, that this is possible now, we just have to take action.

Recommended Reading

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening–With information on mushroom cultivation, sowing a … ways to keep livestock, and more… – Sepp Holzer

Image:  The typical suburb…my neighborhood

What is Design?

Design is a tricky thing to truly nail down because it can mean different things to different people.  Merriam-Webster defines design simply as,

to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan

but this does not give any indication of how to actually go about designing.

Personally, I believe design is the management of energy in a system.  Now think about that for a second as it may not be apparent.  Truly great design seeks to utilize all the energy inputs available to the system while minimizing the amount of energy needed to maintain the system.  Borrowing from the Permaculture design methodology we can think of energy flowing through a system from “Source” to “Sink”.  Source is  the point(s) at which energy enters the system and Sink is the point(s) at which energy exits the system.  We want to keep as much energy out of the sink as possible or make the sink recycle energy back into the system by flowing to the source and creating a feedback loop.  Let me illustrate using the planning of a farm as an example of proper design.

Imagine that you have a 10 acre parcel of raw land that you want to transform into a farm.  You would most likely take a map of the property and start planning where you want your different crops, structures and animals to go.  However, how will you decide what goes where?  The simple answer is to create a layout that minimizes your energy expenditure to maintain the farm.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a farm system that only requires a few hours a week to maintain as opposed to a farm system that requires a few hours a day?  Obviously yes.  The less time we spend maintaining the system the more time we have to pursue other interests.  So by having energy management shape our design process we can start thinking about the layout in terms of visits per year.  We want to minimize the visits per year to the different farm elements.  We would expect to visit the vegetable garden almost daily so we would want to place the vegetable garden very close to the house and not at the edge of the property.  We would place elements that we visit very infrequently such as fruit trees further away from the home because they only require maintenance a few times a year.  In this way we are choosing the path of least resistance to conserve our personal expenditure of energy.

Of course planning a farm is not this simple and requires being thoughtful of other dimensions that effect the overall energy of the farm system such as inputs (sources) from water, solar, wind and fire dimensions.  Solar and water resources are two of the most important inputs to a farm system as all plants require sun and water to grow.  Ideally we would want to position our farm so that it is oriented towards the South so that we can optimize the input of solar energy.  Furthermore, if we live in a dry area we would want to control the flow of water on the farm and if possible use gravity to our advantage to guide the water around the farm so that we don’t require a water pump to move the water around.  Swales (essentially a level ditch that holds and stores water on contour with the land) could be used to capture, slow down, and direct water throughout the farm and even reduce the amount of irrigation needed by minimizing the amount of water exiting the system (sinks).

By incorporating and being thoughtful of the all the farm dimensions and elements and utilizing the connections between them we can start to create a truly robust system that minimizes energy exiting the system and even recycling it back into the system where possible.  Such a system may not require much input energy and after a short time the system may be able to keep itself going indefinitely, just as we observe in natural systems such as forests.  System robustness is a result of using design elements that serve multiple purposes and provide opportunities for energy to be recycled through the system.

Design is more than the sum of the different parts that comprise the system, it’s about managing energy efficiently and creating synergies between the various parts to create robustness.