Firm Deploys OpenOffice—Where It Makes Sense

Case study: FN Manufacturing seeks to deploy the right suite to the right people.

With open-source productivity suites getting better and better, the cost of Microsoft Corp.s Office is looking higher and higher to FN Manufacturing LLC.

Last year, FN Manufacturing began testing 1.1.1 with the hope of mitigating the costs associated with an enterprisewide upgrade to Microsoft Office 2003. FN Manufacturings goal was not necessarily to entirely replace Microsofts Office suite, but to find and deploy a more cost-effective office solution where and when possible. And for Ed Benincasa, an eWEEK Corporate Partner and vice president of MIS at FN Manufacturing, the more the suite matured, the more compelling he found the open-source alternative to be.

"Microsoft Office is a good product, but its expensive to deploy in circumstances where you have light users," said Benincasa in Columbia, S.C. "Were looking for a mix of office suites to help keep costs under control while meeting the needs of our end users. From a cost standpoint, Microsoft Office everywhere just doesnt make sense for us."

In March 2004, eWEEK Labs worked with FN Manufacturing to gauge the usability and capability of 1.1.1 versus that of the then-just-released Office 2003. At the time, FN Manufacturing was using Microsoft Office 97 and Microsoft Office 2000 and was facing a forced upgrade because Microsoft had discontinued distribution of new licenses for those versions.

In addition to comparing 1.1.1s and Office 2003s capabilities, the precision machining manufacturer wanted to determine the training issues and costs it would face were it to move users from Office to an open-source alternative. Although tests determined that users would have little problem making the switch, formatting incompatibilities that emerged during the evaluation concerned Benincasa.

Cautious but undeterred, he conducted a deployment cost analysis last November and determined that FN Manufacturing could save as much as $80,000 by forgoing a wholesale upgrade to Office 2003 and Windows XP and deploying 1.1.1 on the organizations 225 desktops running Novell Inc.s SuSE Linux Desktop 9 or 10.

The potential savings were compelling enough for Benincasa to get buy-in from management to begin deployment of 1.1.1 in areas of FN Manufacturing where potential incompatibilities would not be an issue. In December, Benincasa and his IT managers deployed 1.1.1 on warehouse operations desktops and upgraded shop machines from 1.0 to Version 1.1.1. Using these machines, users view construction and operation control sheets but do not create or make changes to documents.

"Weve been using on the shop floor for about a year now, and we havent had much difficulty," Benincasa said. "Since these machines are for viewing, compatibility issues havent really come up."

For a larger-scale deployment of any non-Microsoft productivity suite to office workers, however, Benincasa wants compatibility issues completely resolved. As long as Microsoft formats are used by the majority of business users, the reality is that IT managers must ensure the documents created by their users are compatible with those created by colleagues, business partners and suppliers.

"[The forthcoming] 2.0 needs to be really successful in meeting the Office format in order for it to have a chance at the large deployments; otherwise, itll always be restricted to small, specialized deployments," Benincasa said. "As long as Microsoft is the industry leader, OpenOffice has to work with Word documents."

During eWEEK Labs testing last year, FN Manufacturings advanced users ran into issues when trying to maintain formatting in complex Microsoft Word documents and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. The final version of 2.0 will reportedly resolve the compatibility issues that came up in testing last year, although Benincasa said that in his tests of 2.0 Beta 1, framing issues and problems with edited graphics in Excel still existed.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about 2.0 and other Microsoft Office alternatives.

Compatibility issues would inevitably be solved, said Benincasa, if the forthcoming version of the Microsoft suite, Office 12, supported the OpenDocument format. However, Microsoft has stated that it has no plans at this time to add support. The software giant did, however, recently announce it would support Adobe Systems Inc.s PDF.

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead more here about Microsoft Office 12.

"It would be ideal to see a standard format so that you could interchange documents between suppliers without issue," Benincasa said. "I believe open standards is where we need to go. We should be able to exchange documents worldwide and open them without issue."

While compatibility continues to hold back a larger deployment of OpenOffice. org 2.0 at FN Manufacturing, the other concern Benincasa had last year—user acceptance of—has turned out to be a nonissue.

"With all the work we did with eWEEK Labs and in our own evaluation, we have consistently found that users will be comfortable with any differences associated with OpenOffice after an hour or two in a classroom environment," he said.

A focus group comprising six FN Manufacturing employees who rely on productivity applications at varying degrees and levels is currently using 1.1.1 as its main office suite. The focus group was formed, Benincasa said, to determine the ease with which most users would handle a transition off Microsoft Office and develop a familiarity with So far, Benincasa said, most users seem satisfied with the open-source alternative.

When 2.0 is released, Benincasa said, he will upgrade the 25 desktops currently running the suite. He and his IT staff will then test the productivity suite for compatibility issues with the goal of rolling it out to the 20 to 30 percent of FN Manufacturings users who require access to a word processor and spreadsheets but are not power users.

"I think well always have Microsoft Office in the organization, but our management is also very supportive of us using," Benincasa said. "We simply want to have the ability to deploy the right products to the right people at the right time." ´

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at

Next Page: FN Manufacturings open-source journey.