Done right, a Linux/open source strategy for the desktop can provide small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) with a less-costly, more reliable, easier-to-manage and more secure client system.
But don't move your corporate desktops to Linux and open source applications just because you hate Microsoft. Do it because it is right for your business, and make sure you have a plan that will ensure a smooth deployment, experts say.
To wit, Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice president and founding partner of The Nemertes Research Group Inc. in Mokena, Ill., warns managers not to view the choice between Linux and Windows on the desktop as "a religious decision," an all-or-nothing proposition.
If you are considering making the switch to Linux, Antonopoulos advises CIOs to "carefully evaluate your business processes and the supporting applications, products and services and plan out a migration strategy that fulfills the needs you have today and supports the growth you will have tomorrow from a business perspective."
So, why would an SMB move to desktop Linux? For Vancouver, B.C., law firm Whitelaw Twining Law Corp., ease of maintenance was the key, and some cost savings didn't hurt.
"The biggest factor [for the migration to desktop Linux] was the amount of maintenance a Windows machine takes," said Richard Giroux, IT manager for the company. "The only reason you update a Windows machine is to protect it against viruses. Realistically, there is very little functionality given to you in a patch, post release, other than the odd service pack."
Whitelaw Twining has moved about 50 of its PCs to Linux in the past two years, leaving only a handful of desktops and notebooks running Windows. "I may deal with Windows machines once a week or every two weeks," Giroux said. "With Linux machines, I measure the number of times I touch them in years. I really haven't done any kind of patch or upgrade for some of my boxes in more than two years."
Another reason to make the switch is security. Linux systems are more secure than Windows clients, in part because of the wide variety of Linux versions. This makes it harder for virus writers to target specific systems, Giroux said. In addition, Linux can be set up in a simpler configuration, running on a basic hardware platform with a low-end processor, minimal memory and a basic graphics card.
For Giroux, new PCs running Novell Inc.'s SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop cost $300 less than systems configured for and equipped with Microsoft Windows Vista Premium. Plus, those Linux machines include a basic Vista license so users can still access Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer.
But migrating to the Linux desktop isn't an obstacle-free process. In his first Linux deployment, Giroux ran into problems cloning machine images, in part because cloning utilities were focused on Windows environments. He said he has since found Linux-oriented tools, but he still encounters situations where a needed application or tool isn't available for Linux.
Giroux said IT managers can't be sure what's going to work or fail during a Linux deployment. He advises organizations moving to Linux to develop a backup plan that allows users to work in Windows until IT can repair any problems in the Linux deployment.
Enderle said one key to a successful desktop deployment, whether you are moving to Vista or Linux, is identifying dependencies such as network protocols and legacy applications.
At enterprises that haven't endured a major desktop move in recent memory, "folks just aren't aware of the kinds of dependencies that exist," he said. "Your typical, even small, company has a pretty good view of what local folks are using, but doesn't have a great view of what remote sites are using."
"There are specific, vertical areas of expertise," including engineering, warehousing and manufacturing, "that IT probably doesn't touch as much as they think they are touching" it, he added.
IT managers should inventory all dependencies and adopt a phased deployment approach, he said, starting with a trial and rollout to the workgroup with the best chance of a smooth deployment.
There are other open source challenges beyond in-house software dependencies, according to Antonopoulos. One is having a plan for supporting open document formats while still working with Microsoft-specific formats that might be used by customers and business partners. Also, managers moving to Linux must consider their managed services such as an accounting portal. Even if they allow access by Linux clients, some service providers don't provide technical support for Linux.
Harkening back to a bygone age, Enderle said, "The prospectors get the arrows, and the settlers get the land. You really want someone else to do as much of the prospecting as you can so you get the benefits.''James M. Connolly is a contributing writer based in Norwood, Mass.