IBM has entered the Linux software market for office software with a vengeance. The Small Business Suite For Linux combines not only a full office productivity suite, but a host of additional software that may make this one of the most enticing bundles available for Linux.

A quick list of the components of the Small Business Suite For Linux package shows how comprehensive it is. We’ll look at the components in more detail in a moment, but here’s what you get: Lotus SmartSuite (the usual office applications), Lotus Notes, Lotus Domino Application Server, Websphere Application Server, DB2 Universal Database (Workgroup Edition), and a bunch of utilities and add-ons. Quite an impressive list, and one that should get any Linux server administrator salivating with the possibilities this package offers.

The box the Small Business Suite For Linux comes in seems substantial, but the physical contents are disappointing. There’s lots of bumf on support services and license agreements (the thickest booklet in the box if the license information in sixteen languages). There’s also a Getting Started booklet, which tells you how to install the software. There’s a vinyl wallet with six CD-ROMs inserted. And that’s it. You want documentation? Tough. Apparently, your $499 for the server license (and $90 for the desktop license) isn’t enough to justify a printed manual. Sure, there’s some stuff on CD-ROM and on-line help, but this doesn’t replace printed documentation for a suite of this complexity. You can use Adobe Acrobat to read the PDF files, but IBM didn’t even include the reader on the CDs! We’d happily have paid $20 more for a useful printed guide to the components. A lack of good documentation is an inexcusable oversight for a product like this.

Installation Headaches

If you want to install Small Business Suite For Linux on a server and make use of some of the server software components like Domino or Websphere, be prepared to have a fancy system for it to reside on. The Small Business Suite For Linux installs on many Linux distributions, including RedHat, Caldera OpenLinux, TurboLinux, and SuSE. It runs under either KDE or GNOME. You must have TCP/IP configured prior to installing the Small Business Suite For Linux. You need at least a 400Mhz CPU (but if you want to run more than one application at a time, better bump that up at least double!), and 256MB RAM (again, more is really needed for multiple applications). Also, a decent swap space is required, even more important if you are short of RAM. As for video, IBM requires a minimum resolution of 1024x768 in 256 colors.

For workstations, which likely will only run the SmartSuite package, you need at least a 166MHz machine (faster is better) and 64MB RAM (a bare minimum). The same Linux distributions and both GNOME and KDE are supported for the SmartSuite package, while screen resolution required drops to 800x600 in 256 colors.

The installation process is long and bothersome. The Suites Installer takes care of most of the grunt work, but there are unnecessary complications at several steps. For example, instead of an “install” or “setup” script, you have to run “DJT_staging-install”. Why bother with the long name? Further, the installer can only reside in the /opt directory. Which means you need a big /opt directory, since most components are copied there from the CD-ROMs prior to their final destinations (if different from /opt). Again, this is a silly requirement. How complicated could it have been to provide a variable for the target installation directory? As for disk space, well, if you install the entire package, you’d better have several Gigabytes of disk space free. Even the SmartSuite by itself takes up almost half a gigabyte of disk space (although the base utilities require only about 160MB).

The process of copying the files for the server is very long, while the workstation install is much shorter. The length of time this whole process takes depends on the components you are installing, but on our test system (a 1.4GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB RAM and dual SCSI 52x CD-ROMs and an UltraSCSI RAID disk array – hardly a slow machine by any standards) it took a couple of hours total. When we tried a network install onto both another server (similar configuration) and a workstation (1GHz AMD Athlon with 256MB RAM and Promise IDE RAID controller), we left it overnight. The network server install took approximately four hours, and the workstation installation was almost ninety minutes. These are not trivial installation procedures!

Once the installation files have been copied to the /opt directory, you need to register the software. You don’t want to? You’ll get prompted every two weeks to register until you do. And despite the fact the documents are in 16 languages, you can only use English to register!

Using the Small Business Suite For Linux

For most end users, the important part of the Small Business Suite For Linux package is the Lotus SmartSuite component. This is a package similar to the SmartSuite that is available for Windows. For word processing, there’s Word Pro which isn’t quite as powerful as Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux but close enough for most user’s needs. The spreadsheet is the venerable Lotus 1-2-3, which allows importing of Lotus spreadsheets from other environments with no changes. Freelance Graphics provides presentation graphics software, and appears to be the same package as the Freelance version under Windows. The database is Approach, which is a simpler package than some other suite databases. The rest of the suite rounds out with Organizer, a contact and time manager; ScreenCam, for capturing and playing back multimedia files; and SmartCenter for handling Internet information. FastSite is a simple Web publisher that is also bundled in the package.

A quick look at the suite components shows they are all good tools, and they compare well to the two main competitors: Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux and StarOffice. The Lotus spreadsheet is arguably the best on the Linux market although Quattro Pro from the Corel suite has some features we preferred, but Word Pro is, as noted, not as flexible or talented as WordPerfect (although on a par with the word processor in StarOffice). The Approach database didn’t impress us as well as Corel’s Paradox 9. The Freelance Graphics presentation graphics package was a winner, compared to Corel Presentations, but the Organizer was a mixed bag. We had several users work with Small Business Suite For Linux for two weeks, all of whole had experience with both the Corel WordPerfect and StarOffice suites. The general consensus was that the SmartSuite was better than StarOffice, but lagged behind Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux by a fair margin. Since this is similar to our Windows experiences, this wasn’t surprising. If all you want is an office suite, the $90 for Small Business Suite For Linux may be competitive but the software isn’t.

Having said that about the SmartSuite component, it’s time to see where Small Business Suite For Linux really shines. For administrators and managers the more important parts of the Small Business Suite For Linux package are the other applications. These revolve around Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino application server. The Lotus Domino Application Server is similar to Domino on Windows NT, and provides a complex database and e-mail server for small and medium size companies. Domino has been extensively debugged and refined under Windows for several years, and the polish shows off in the Linux version. The compatibility with the Windows version is complete, as far as we can tell. As part of the package, there’s also Lotus Notes, the messaging groupware package that really was the precursor to Domino.

The Domino Designer component is a Web development tool which provides WYSIWYG capabilities for complex Web sites that need to extract information, even dynamically, from the Lotus Notes and Domino databases. There’s Java, JavaScript, and LotusScript all built in, although the documentation for the Designer is poor (again, where is the printed documentation for such a complex package?).

Another component of Small Business Suite For Linux aimed at the Web is WebSphere HomePage Builder, which allows for dynamic HTML, cascading style sheets, and tons more all in a drag-and-drop interface. WebSphere was easy to work with (at least easier than Domino Designer) but again there are lots of features we didn’t discover thanks to the on-line help’s lack of help. The IGM HHTP Server is included to offer Web services, and is a variation of Apache with enhanced security.

What else do you get? There’s the DB2 Universal Database Workgroup Edition Server which offers a DB2 environment for Linux. DB2 is, of course, IBM’s large scale RDBMS and is not for simple applications. Nevertheless, for DB2 programmers, this is a welcome addition to the Linux server package. If you’ve never used DB2 and you don’t need enterprise-scale database applications, stick to the SmartSuite Approach package instead.

Is any of this useful to you? There’s no denying the power of many of these packages, like the DB2 server, Domino, Notes, and WebSphere. Every one of these is a tried-and-true complex package. Not one is for the faint-hearted, and if you are not experience with them you have a steep learning curve ahead. Buy a good book on each subject and take it slow. For those with experience in Domino, Notes, or DB2, there’s a familiar environment to work with. We easily ported some Windows Domino applications to Linux, although trivial changes (such as directory paths and security permissions) will require modification.

As you might expect, with all these server applications you can’t simply install and use. There’s a complex setup required for groups, users, and security settings. Setting up Domino and WebSphere for our test LAN took us the better part of a day. Once set up, they require continual attention from an administrator.

We had no trouble using any of the components in Small Business Suite For Linux throughout our two week test, although some of the server applications didn’t get an in-depth workout. After all, you can take years to truly push Domino or Notes to its limits. Still, we had no crash or lockup problem at all under SuSE or RedHat Linux (our test server platforms), and we enjoyed the experience of working with Small Business Suite For Linux throughout.

Wrapup

We should consider Small Business Suite For Linux in two parts: workstation and server. The workstation SmartSuite package is very good, but as noted not quite in the same league as Corel’s Suite for Linux. The server side is a completely different story. Despite the pathetic lack of documentation and mediocre on-line help, as well as overly complicated installation requirements, there are applications included in the Small Business Suite For Linux that make Linux a bona fide competitor to Windows NT.

Having the ability to install Domino, Notes, DB2, or WebSphere (as a Web sever or Web site design tool) on a Linux system means you save a lot of money over the Windows equivalents, and that’s good. Performance is better under Linux and the security seems better. If you need even one of the server or Web design tools included in the Small Business Suite For Linux package, you can justify the $499 cost of the server configuration. If you’re not in a corporate or company environment where these tools make sense, well, it would be silly to buy the server setup, wouldn’t it?

Is Small Business Suite For Linux a winner? With slight qualifications noted several times above, yes. There’s a ton of good stuff here. There’s tested, robust applications now available for Linux. There’s a good suite. In fact, it’s one of the better bargains for company Linux servers currently available. Kudos to IBM for making them all available for Linux in a well integrated package. Now, about those manuals…

Small Business Suite For Linux
IBM
$499 Server
$90 workstation

Summary: Enterprise servers for Linux. SmartSuite a good office package, but the other components make this bundle shine.