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Five Free Programs Every Business Owner Should Use

From protecting your PCs from malware to managing all your human-resources needs, these apps work minor miracles without opening your wallet

A couple weeks ago I offered tips on how to launch a business on the cheap. Today let's talk about running the business you already have. How can you keep costs low but efficiency high?

Start with software. If you're spending (or planning to spend) any kind of money at all on commercial software for your business, chances are good there's a free or open-source alternative that can do the job just as well.

I rounded up a few good candidates in part 2 of the aforementioned dirt-cheap-startup post, but those were mostly for individual use.

Today, let's look at five incredible utilities -- all of them free -- designed for business operations. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what money can't buy.

1. Microsoft Security Essentials

Perfect for smaller shops, Microsoft's free (and highly rated) anti-virus utility can be used on up to 10 PCs. (Actually, I'm not sure what would prevent you from installing it on, say, 30 or 40 PCs, but Microsoft says 10's the limit.)

This has the potential to save you hundreds of dollars annually on security software. I'm running it myself on five machines, and it has performed quickly, quietly, and efficiently on every one of them.

2. OpenProj Designed to replace Microsoft Project (which, incidentally, sells for a thousand bucks), OpenProj offers a full roster of project-management features: Gantt Charts, Network Diagrams, WBS and RBS charts, Earned Value costing, and so on.

Plus, it's cross-platform compatible (Windows, Mac, and Linux), unlike the Windows-only Project.

3. OrangeHRM

You spend enough money on human resources without paying for HR software on top of it. OrangeHRM is a complete human-resource management solution designed for SMBs. It includes modules for things like personnel information management, leave management, time and attendance, and benefits. There's even a self-service module employees can use to update their own information. This is really a killer tool for companies looking to manage HR on the cheap.

4. Soluto Does your PC take a week to boot up? Are you constantly fielding "My computer is slow!" complaints from employees? Before you cave and spend all kinds of money on new machines, try installing Soluto. This ingenious free utility makes PCs boot faster. (The latest version also keeps installed software up to date.) I'm running it myself on my desktop and laptop, and it has improved considerably the boot times on both. It's the kind of thing you or your IT manager would need to deploy one PC at a time, but it's worth the effort -- and should help quell the complaints.5. Spiceworks Whether you're the IT guy in charge of your company's 10 PCs or you've got a staff managing 1,000 of them, your business needs a comprehensive network-monitoring solution. Spiceworks is arguably one of the best free IT tools of all time, offering network management and monitoring, a user helpdesk, equipment inventory, and lots more. The latest version even comes with Android and iPhone counterparts for easy systems management on the go.

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