Linux Renews Desktop Bid

By Anne Chen  |  Posted 2002-10-14

Linux Renews Desktop Bid

An old hand at using Linux in the server room, Steve OBrien, director of IT operations for Jefferson County, Colo., spent the last five years eagerly waiting for Linux to make the leap to the corporate desktop. First, however, Linux would have to satisfy OBriens checklist of requirements: It had to provide access to his Novell Inc. GroupWise e-mail system, an easy-to-use browser, the ability to read and write Microsoft Corp. Office file formats, as well as the ability to interact with AS/400 midrange servers.

This year, with the release of OpenOffice.orgs OpenOffice 1.0 office productivity suite for Linux, the last of OBriens requirements were met. While Windows will always be on a substantial number of his desktops, OBrien gave users the green light to migrate to Linux. He said he hopes to see 20 percent of his desktop computing environment on Linux by the end of next year, and so far 30 of his 1,600 users have made the move.

Until now, Linux has not been considered ready for corporate desktops. But with Red Hat Inc., and other big players in the Linux world releasing key products for the desktop, IT managers such as OBrien are beginning to see Linux as a viable alternative to Windows.

But even fans such as OBrien caution against making the move off Windows without exercising great care and consideration. And, they warn, organizations shouldnt expect a move to Linux to significantly cut desktop costs. While Linux may be freely available over the Internet, costs associated with support, training and administration can more than make up for any licensing savings. As a result, say experts, desktop Linux, although attractive for some narrow applications, is unlikely to pose a serious threat to Windows as a widely used desktop operating system any time soon.

"We have definitely been hearing a lot of rumblings about [desktop] Linux," said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "The trick here is to decide if theres real business value from making a move to Linux, or if youre just doing it to spite Microsoft. It can be just as expensive to move off Microsoft."

Indeed, even though CIOs are obsessed these days with getting the most value out of their software vendors, few at large enterprises seem to be clamoring to replace Windows with Linux on a wholesale basis. Analysts dont foresee Linux making a large dent in Microsofts stranglehold on the desktop market within the next five years.

"I buy software because the value-cost benefit is right," said Daniel McNicholl, CIO of General Motors North America, in Detroit, who describes himself as an operating system agnostic. "I have no basis for or against Linux. If vendors need to switch to Linux in order to reduce my costs, then so be it." So far, however, McNicholl said he has no plans to deploy Linux on desktops at GM.

Why Switch


Why Switch?

Linux does offer certain attractions as an alternative to Windows. The ability to customize Linux on desktops, the ease of management and the lack of licensing fees are all reasons some IT managers are considering making the switch from Windows to Linux on the desktop. Linuxs customizability is making it increasingly popular for some dedicated desktop applications such as point of sale and data entry where workers dont require compute-intensive office applications, according to some experts.

So what factors should IT managers weigh as they mull whether to switch from Windows to Linux on the desktop? Experts say they should first determine their motives for a switch. In some cases, the motive is purely economic, driven by the need to cut desktop computing costs. In those cases, IT managers should do a thorough cost analysis, remembering to consider support, training and software porting costs.

In other cases, the motive is more philosophic. Some public-sector organizations, for example, are under orders to move as quickly as possible away from proprietary software and toward open source. In those cases, experts said, IT managers should evaluate where Linux makes the most sense within the organization.

Certainly, one cause for the increased interest in Linux desktops is Microsofts Software Assurance licensing program, which went into effect July 31 and could increase Windows licensing costs for some organizations. The program has some CIOs and IT buyers scrambling to figure out whether deploying Windows-free desktops would enable them to reduce IT spending. Under Microsofts new rules, companies that plan to regularly upgrade Microsoft software will pay an annual discounted licensing fee toward future bulk upgrades. Those that choose to forgo the licensing agreements, however, will pay the full price of a new license every time they upgrade a Microsoft software product, a requirement that could increase software costs.

At IT consulting company LinOra Corp., in Boise, Idaho, CEO Kelly Hogan said he moved 12 desktops and 25 servers to Linux after he reviewed Microsofts Software Assurance plan. Hogan deployed the Ximian Inc. desktop and Sun Microsystems Inc.s StarOffice 6.0 on his desktops and estimates he saved as much as $700 per desktop by not signing on with Software Assurance.

"It had come down to either ponying up for Microsoft licenses or switching to Linux, and we chose to defer the Microsoft upgrade," Hogan said. "We were faced with a huge bill from Microsoft, and moving to Linux saved us a bundle."

Microsoft competitors are seizing on this dissatisfaction with Software Assurance, seeing an opportunity to release Linux desktop programs and solutions to a receptive market.

Red Hat, for example, last month released Version 8.0 of its Linux distribution, featuring support for both GNOME, or GNU Network Object Model Environment, and KDE (K Desktop Environment) desktops.

Also last month, Sun announced its Project Mad Hatter initiative, under which it will sell Linux-based desktop systems along with Sun servers running the companys Solaris operating system on the back end.

Linux desktops are likely to gain the most ground soonest at organizations where the open-source operating system already has a foothold in server rooms. At Jefferson County, OBrien has Linux running on 50 servers and has been using Linux since 1997.

When OpenOffice Version 1.0 was released in May, OBrien began a pilot rollout of Linux desktops. Last month, he began to offer Linux desktops to any county department that requested one. OBrien is currently offering an Intel Corp. Pentium 4 with 512MB of RAM pre-installed with Red Hat Linux, the KDE desktop, Mozilla 1.1, a Web browser and a Jabber Inc. instant messaging client. Novells GroupWise is used on Linux and Windows boxes for e-mail. The Linux-equipped PC costs county departments $640.

In contrast, a Windows PC with the same hardware specifications costs $770 pre-loaded with Windows 2000 and will run an additional $300 if a Microsoft Office 2000 license is needed.

OBrien said there are minor differences between Microsoft Office and StarOffice programs, but so far, none of the 30 users of Linux desktop systems have complained.

No Huge Savings

No Huge Savings

OBrien said, however, that IT managers should not expect to save their organizations millions—or even thousands—of dollars by making the switch. With training, application porting and support costs also rising, OBrien said he has not seen significant savings as a result of deploying Linux desktops.

"I may not pay the licensing fees, but I still have to budget for training, support and administrative costs," said OBrien, who added that the move to Linux was motivated in large part by a decision to move the county away from proprietary software. "Costs like that are identical whether you buy a proprietary product or use open source."

Also, experts said, any enterprise that has a significant base of macros written for Microsoft Office or third-party applications that integrate tightly with Microsoft Office will face additional migration costs. Suns StarOffice suite, for example, while offering compatibility with most Windows file formats, does not enable macros, pivot tables or any other add-on features developed using Visual Basic. So companies that have made liberal use of Visual Basic scripting could find migrating to Linux costly. In addition, according to Gartners Silver, most large enterprises could find themselves with hundreds if not thousands of customized Windows applications to migrate.

The absence of savings, however, will not stop OBrien from continuing to support a move to Linux on the desktop for some users. "Cost was not the major driver behind our use of Linux," OBrien said. "These are tight times in Jefferson County, and were very aware of keeping our eyes on the nickels. But we moved to Linux because we like the open-source concept, and we wanted to have as little proprietary software in our computing environment as possible."

Although many IT managers do not see big savings in a move to desktop Linux, some application software vendors and systems integrators are looking at Linux as a way to cut their own costs. In addition, as they port their applications to the open-source operating system, theyre beginning to pull customers along with them. At Zumiez Inc., an extreme-sports equipment retailer based in Everett, Wash., for example, Rory Hudson, retail systems manager, deployed Linux on the desktop for point-of-sale applications after his retail management system software vendor, Apropos Retail Systems Inc., in Lynwood, Wash., dropped support of its software on Unix and went all-Linux.

Hudson said he wanted to maintain his relationship with his point-of-sale software vendor, so last year, when Apropos switched to Linux, Hudson began testing Linux on the desktop at three stores. When the point-of-sale terminals made it through the busy holiday shopping season, Hudson decided to make the leap. In March, he began deploying Red Hat Version 6.0 with the Ximian desktop in 100 retail locations. The migration took two months.

Hudson said the move to Linux has saved his company money—by cutting out Unix license charges—but cost cutting wasnt the main issue. Stability was.

But, while Linux is good enough for his retail stores, Hudson echoed the sentiments of many IT managers, saying he has no plans to replace the desktops at his corporate headquarters with Linux. Hes evaluated Linux for the desktop there, but Hudson said there isnt a good reason for him to switch completely off Windows right now.

"When we make a decision to switch software vendors, we have to look at the needs of the user, and right now, Linux desktops arent viable for us," Hudson said. "We are quite satisfied with the Microsoft software we have right now, so theres really no reason for us to make the switch."

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be contacted at

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