Tech Tip: Know your Microsoft alternatives

Find out your Microsoft alternatives.

By Jonathan Yarden

Almost all companies realize that relying exclusively on any one source is a risk. Whether it's an operating system, a key employee, or a distributor, single sources of essential products or services can result in a dangerous dependency.

Most people are aware that a very high percentage of companies and users have this dependency with Microsoft operating systems. In fact, this reliance has even created a new industry buzzword: monoculture. The IT version of a biological term, monoculture refers to the pervasiveness of Microsoft software, which some analysts argue endangers global computer security.

Espousing this monoculture can be dangerous, but talking about a problem and finding a solution are two different things. One way to address the concerns of the Microsoft monoculture is to experiment with alternatives.

The largest concern about Windows is its seemingly never-ending vulnerability to wide-scale exploits, especially e-mail-borne problems. Frankly, I'm weary of worms and viruses targeted at Windows, and I'm not the only one.

But is the real problem the Microsoft monoculture? Plenty of Windows alternatives are available, and this isn't exactly a new development. The real issue is that companies must be willing to learn and train employees how to use these alternatives.

Despite concerns about the Microsoft monoculture, most companies aren't willing to investigate their other options. When it comes to using alternative operating systems, many corporations use what I call the "Office defense"—if they can't use Microsoft Office, then they won't switch from Windows.

But in my opinion, the rationale that Microsoft Office is a stumbling block isn't very logical. For example, Office runs fine on Apple Macintosh systems, and Macs are a great way to change the Windows monoculture if you're serious about alternatives.

In addition, UNIX can run many Windows applications as well as, if not better than, Windows itself. Wine, an implementation of the Windows API, allows you to run many Windows applications, including Microsoft Office, under Linux. With Wine, another excuse to remain "monocultural" fades away.

Xandros, a commercial Linux distribution, is a quick and affordable way to change your culture right now. In my testing, Xandros ran Microsoft Office faster than Windows XP by a large margin.

Plenty of alternatives also exist for servers, both commercial and open source. Remember: It doesn't really matter what software the server runs, as long as you can access your network file system. For alternative network file systems, consider NetWare or AppleShare.

If you must have native Windows file system support, try Samba, an open source implementation of the SMB protocol that's as fast (if not faster) at serving network-mapped drives as Windows.

If the Microsoft monoculture exists, it's up to companies to decide to change it. If you're committed to expanding your options, you have several choices for doing so.

In my opinion, the real problem remains corporate aversion to open source software, due primarily to an ignorance of alternatives. Perhaps the hidden danger of complete reliance on one operating system is not even knowing that alternatives do exist.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

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