Maronda Homes made a technology decision few builders would ever dare make: The home builder bet its computing future on Linux. For the uninitiated, Linux is an alternative operating system commonly referred to as "open source" that's developed by an extended community of programmers worldwide. The idea behind open source is that a broader group of programmers will produce a more useful and bug-free product for the general public, since more people review and improve the code. Most of Linux's commercial success is as a low-cost alternative for database and application server systems.

Pittsburgh-based Maronda Homes now runs desktop applications on its 550 PCs with OpenOffice, Linux shareware downloaded off the Web from Maronda is also using commercial server software from Red Hat on its AS/400 mid-range server to manage its networked applications. The move has saved Maronda in excess of $300,000 on annual licensing fees for Microsoft Office and server maintenance costs.

"The basic idea is that running OpenOffice is cheaper, and over time the desktop applications will develop," says Mark Piccolo, Maronda's director of management information systems. "OpenOffice has roughly the same functionality as [Microsoft] Office 97, but that's more than enough for the average user," he says.

Of all the major computer companies, IBM has been the most enthusiastic backer of Linux for server applications, although Oracle and Hewlett-Packard also support Linux. Other companies, most notably Red Hat and SUSE Linux, also offer commercial server applications. On the desktop front, builders unsure of downloading shareware can find commercial Linux desktop products from Sun Microsystems, which sells StarOffice 7 for $79.95 for a single-user license, and SUSE has SUSE Linux Personal 9.0 for a single-user for $39.95 and SUSE Linux Desktop, which sells for $598 for a five-user license.

Piccolo says Maronda's decision to use Linux was based on three major factors. First, Maronda can download OpenOffice for free. (The annual subscription fee for Maronda to stay up to date on Microsoft Office for its 550 PCs is now $207,000.)

Second, using OpenOffice eliminates licensing concerns. Piccolo says managing software licenses for more than 500 PCs was cumbersome. When a hard drive failed, he needed to reload the operating system and wasn't always sure if the license on the CD he was loading was current.

Finally, companies that run OpenOffice and open-source software are much less vulnerable to attacks from hackers than companies that depend solely on Microsoft applications. Many of the major e-mail viruses and hacker attacks are aimed at Microsoft applications.

"We found it very difficult to keep up with all the licenses," says Piccolo. "We took an inventory and decided we had the choice of purchasing all the licenses to become compliant or make the switch to OpenOffice."

One caveat: Maronda did spend about $2,000 to run Red Hat Linux 7.1 on its IBM AS/400 server. However, running Linux on the larger and more powerful AS/400 server saved Maronda from running 10 to 15 PC-based servers at all its divisions.

Here are the savings Piccolo estimates from switching to OpenOffice and running Linux on the server:

* $207,000 for annual license fee for Microsoft Office update

* $109,000 annually to maintain PC servers

* $600 per new PC for Microsoft Office

* $100 per new PC for Windows XP

* $100 per PC on Windows XP upgrades on existing PCs.

As of now, Maronda is running OpenOffice over Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system. Piccolo says that the company plans to move all its PCs to a Red Hat desktop operating system in 2004.

Inside Linux Here are some tips for home builders who want to explore Linux:

* Shareware for OpenOffice desktop applications can be downloaded at

* Use OpenOffice if all you need office software for is to make up standard business correspondence and spreadsheets. Users with more advanced editing needs should spend the money for Microsoft Office.

* Companies deploying OpenOffice on multiple workstations can download the operating system onto a CD and use the CD to load OpenOffice locally.

* For servers, look at products from IBM, Red Hat, and SUSE Linux to help you consolidate PC servers.

* Larger builders looking at Linux need to invest in an IT staff who can manage Linux applications; smaller builders should seek advice from a consultant.