The incredible wealth of open source projects available has one unfortunate side effect: some real jewels can become lost in the shuffle. Efforts are underway to automate the search and retrieval of the best tool for a specific situation and the FLOSSMetrics project in the European Union in one example of these efforts. However, sometimes the dreaded “10 Best” lists are a good, initial tool to learn a bit more about an application that may be useful.
Knowing that there are bound to be some under-appreciated open source jewels that could benefit small companies, I revisited a list of the most commonly requested applications that were developed in another, older project called OpenTTT. I found that three of the most popular requests were for project management, document management, and storage solutions. Here, I have tried to present three new open source tools that best meet these needs, but might be less well known than they should be.
If there is one thing that most small companies would like, but usually can't afford, it is project management software. While there are some good tools available, most have not been updated for a long time, such as OpenWorkbench. One of my favourite tools under active development is an Austrian project called OnePoint, which either runs locally as a Java application, or it can be located on a server and accessed through a web browser. The open source edition provides a good set of features, even for large scale projects. It is also fairly easy to use, with good documentation and examples.
Alfresco is the clear market leader in OSS document management, but despite its fame, most small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are still unaware of it. Even some consultants are not pushing some of its more interesting features. For example, Alfresco is unique in managing documents through its SMB interface, which means that it is possible to load and access documents through any Windows or Linux machine directly from the desktop. This greatly simplifies the bulk loading of documents that usually happens when a document management system is installed for the first time. Other open source document management systems restrict this mode to commercial users only.
Other features of Alfresco are even less well known. For example, it is possible to access the document base through any email client, with full search and viewing of documents as a single email, with all the metadata preserved. Another interesting feature is the Sharepoint-like view that provides easy-to-manage sites with wikis, lists, integrated document workflow, and more. It basically includes all the things that made Sharepoint an instant success. It does provide native support for the Sharepoint protocol in Microsoft Office (if you still use it, instead of OpenOffice), along with workflow features and much more, even in the open source edition.
When asked for the best storage solution, most readers would stop and shout “Samba!” like a bunch of festive participants at a Brazilian-themed party. Actually, Samba is an extraordinary example of open source software in action, but is only part of a solution and it still requires enough work to need a consultant for installation and management in most SMBs.
There is an alternative, which has been developed on the basis of OpenSolaris (recently under the spotlight for the Oracle Google lawsuit). The alternative is called NexentaStor, and it brings a feature that really is great for SMBs: deduplication, or the capability of recognizing identical pieces of files (or binary sequences) and transparently “pack” them so that they need very little space. Given the incredible number of copies that are part of the common SMB workplace, deduplication greatly increases the amount of usable space, especially for distributed workforces. The best way to install it is to use the VMware (or Xen) image that is already configured and ready to go; it also can be executed under VirtualBox without losing significantly in terms of efficiency.
So those are my top three hidden jewels. Do you have any suggestions of other tools that may be useful for SMBs? Write to me or send a tweet to @cdaffara!