If your small business has a computer terminal in your office or a dedicated machine for business use, it is a near certainty that the machine is running a version of Windows (or sometimes MacOS). There is, however, another operating system platform available to small business owners that often goes under the radar of non-techies: Linux. Linux is a fully open-source operating system that works in tandem with a companion process called a “kernel.” While Linux on its own is unable to operate like Windows, Linux with the help of a distro like Ubuntu, Mint, Manjaro, or several more, can function near-identically to Windows, and in specific use cases may run better than Windows.
Linux is a fast, free alternative to Windows that may sound too good to be true; that’s about half right: Getting Linux and your kernel of choice off the ground isn’t as simple as booting up your machine and letting it do its own thing. Getting a functioning version of Linux on your machine can take a decent amount of time and know-how; and managing Linux if a problem arises can take some astute troubleshooting as well. It is then essential that small business owners get a full picture of the pros and cons of Linux for business before making the plunge.
Compared to Windows, Linux gives users a near-unlimited amount of choices as to how you would like your computer to run. For example, if you want an experience visually identical to Windows but detest always-online features or bloatware, there’s a kernel for you. If you want a barebones (and we mean barebones) OS that puts all of your machine’s power only where you specifically want it, you better believe you can do that too. The conclusion is, if you know exactly what you want to do with your work terminal, there is likely a Linux distro that can help you do it better with very few, if any, downside. Since Windows is a catch-all, general OS, it can do everything very well; but some workplace terminals have one dedicated process and plainly don’t benefit from Windows’ many hats.
While modern Windows 11 (or even Windows 7) can run blazing fast when installed on modern NVMe SSDs, it is inherently true that since most Linux distros are more lightweight than Windows, they will run faster since there is less to load on booting up or loading new processes.
Using a version of Linux on an older machine may also speed up a machine outright. A system test performed by DXM Tech Support found that when running Windows 11 and Linux Mint (nowhere near the most lightweight distro out there), Mint outperformed Windows consistently across the board in examples like launching Slack and or even launching more complex GNU image manipulation programs like GIMP.
Run Offline for Software-Specific Terminals
Running Windows offline can be an unnecessary hassle, as Microsoft has a tendency to remind users that they are offline or flat out not functioning; of course, implying that there is no reason a Windows user wouldn’t want to be connected to Microsoft’s watchful eye. There are several practical use cases for running your machines offline, several being related to server functions, but several more examples could be related to software with sensitive information that ought not be online at all. One of the most versatile options for fully-offline systems is Debian which is a prime choice for terminals that run a set few pieces of software that have no benefit being online.
Less Susceptible to Cyber Attacks
Because Windows is the overwhelming OS of choice among consumers, the vast majority of malware and other cyber threats are designed to infect Windows users. There is an increasing amount of focus on Linux distros, but experts have long-held that Linux operating systems are consistently safer than Windows. If any of your workplace terminals deal in sensitive data, it is more than worth considering switching to a Linux distro for the security boon alone.
And for those still concerned about cyber security on Linux systems, there are several additional kinds of cyber security software available specifically for Linux users.
Wild West of Tech Support
It is near impossible to render a Windows machine unusable via user error; but on Linux that is a real possibility. When configuring a Linux machine, there are more than a few places where a mis-click, or a not-fully-installed process could lead to a broken distro and hours of trial and error finding out what isn’t working. While Windows has dedicated FAQ pages and authorized support channels for dealing with the infrequent errors that show up, Linux tech support is almost entirely community-based; and finding the specific help you need usually means you’ll need to ask the question on a forum yourself; so, you’ll need to have a pretty good idea of what went wrong in the first place.
Customizability comes at the expense of a high chance of user error, so it pays to genuinely know your Linux distro of choice inside and out. There are several free resources for learning the basics of Linux and even a few coding tips for beginners, however, that can make getting to the bottom of tech issues much easier to do on your own rather than depending on hobbyists and casual users for help.
Not All Windows Programs Work Natively (Or at All)
Some of the most frequently used business web tools on the market are built for Windows and thus, do not work natively on most Linux distros. The big (maybe obvious) example is the Microsoft Office Suite which includes Microsoft Word, Outlook, Excel, etc. which can be a big hit for businesses that either have a long history of saved Excel files in storage… or is it? The open-source Office alternative, Libre Office, has taken the Linux (and even Windows) world by storm being a free, functionally identical version of Microsoft Office which has full compatibility with all MS Office file types.
Another example of non-natively running software is QuickBooks. The only way to get QuickBooks running on a Linux machine is to emulate an instance of Windows. There is, of course, a great open-source alternative to QuickBooks, CashGnu, which functions near-identically to QuickBooks.
Benefits Certain Fields Disproportionately
Small businesses who would benefit from Linux tend to be from very specific fields and perform very specific processes on their terminals. A great example of where Linux can increase efficiency is patient management software for a dental or healthcare office. Many medical offices use a version of Linux for their internal software because of some combination of the above-listed benefits of a custom Linux distro. But if you aren’t using patient management software or some other industry-specific software, Linux benefits become a bit more abstract. Small businesses that use their terminals to answer customer emails, for example, don’t have much to gain by switching their Windows machines to Linux. The same is true for businesses that critically depend on software like QuickBooks or the Adobe Suite; they would likely have to run an emulated version of Windows on their Linux machines to get work done.
Those use cases of offline terminals or servers in general, however, would likely see tangible benefits in switching to Linux; it is, of course, important to note that this represents a very specific type of small business.
Efficiency After Trial by Fire
The greater community of Linux users revel in the operating system’s freedom and customizability. But just as well, after spending the not-insignificant amount of time learning the finer points of Linux, it’s only natural that users would come to accept that system as preferable. Clearing that trial by fire is no joke; getting Linux off the ground is a great means to see how many processes are automated in Windows or MacOS.
Linux certainly is not for every small business owner. Windows has been continually refined as an OS for the better part of 30 years and now functions just about seamlessly in any way a business owner could need. For those with unorthodox needs like always-offline terminals, web servers, or industry-specific technical software, however, Linux is likely a dancing partner worth taking to the soirée. If your styles don’t match, of course, Windows will welcome you back with open arms.