Windows 3.1, Windows 95/98/Me, Windows 2000, and now Windows XP: The Microsoft operating system upgrade cycle can be a never-ending, expensive, and difficult process, especially when an organization is under a cash crunch. Where previously there wasn’t much of an alternative, Linux is coming of age in the user desktop arena and could prove a viable alternative to Windows for your organization.

While very large companies with thousands of employees are not yet as likely to consider Linux for the desktop, many small to midsize companies with a few dozen to a few hundred employees may be in the perfect position to implement it. On the other hand, a number of factors—including training and migration issues—could make such a move to Linux not the most fiscally responsible solution.

The scenario
Many organizations are unable to have a large staff of technology professionals and instead rely on a few IT pros who report to a manager who may or may not be technically knowledgeable. These IT pros support all the business’ technology needs. This group plans to upgrade from Windows 95/98/Me to Windows 2000 Professional. They decided that since Windows XP is still new, they should wait until it has one or two service packs under its belt before moving to it. As with many organizations, the people in this group have also experimented with Linux for the past few months and are already running some of their organization’s core services, such as DHCP or DNS, on Linux servers.

This organization is planning to move to a newer version of Windows at upwards of $150 to $200 per seat, plus they might need to pay software assurance to ensure that future versions are available at a reasonable cost. The organization might also need to invest in additional hardware to make the move.

One of the technical support staff is running Linux on his desktop and wants to make a case to his IT manager and senior management that this operating system should be evaluated for desktop use instead of moving to Windows 2000. In just one year, this support tech has seen many positive features added that could make Linux a viable alternative. Here are some of the points he might make followed by some reasons why upper management might reject this idea.

The good
Why would an organization make the decision to move to Linux rather than upgrade to the next version of Windows? There are many factors, including price, user-friendliness, and lower-level hardware requirements. Here are a few points the support tech could present to management.

Cost of acquisition
Since Linux is open source, the licenses are free. You can create the media by downloading and burning to CD the ISO images from vendor Web sites.

Desktop ease of use
With the KDE and Gnome desktops available, and new, better versions imminent, a Linux desktop machine can be configured to be almost as easy to use as a Windows machine. Of course, for users who are familiar with the Windows look, feel, and operation, there will definitely be transition issues. However, choosing a Linux desktop version that functions and looks very close to Windows will help alleviate problems.

Office application
The “killer app” that brought computers to most desks has been an office suite that consists of at least a word processor and spreadsheet package. Notwithstanding the small market shares of Corel’s and IBM’s office suites, Microsoft has owned this corner market, and until recently, there hasn’t been a truly viable product available for the Linux market.

With the latest release of Open Office and the impending shipment of StarOffice 6 (which recently ended a beta program), Linux will soon have an office suite that can compete with MS Office. In addition, KOffice and Abiword are also alternatives if the complete functionality of the other suites is not required.

The second “killer app” for desktop computing, a strong groupware package, has also not been available on the Linux desktop until recently. With the release of Evolution by Ximian, an Outlook look-alike product, this desktop niche has also been filled in the Linux arena. Evolution is even capable of using a Microsoft Exchange server via the Exchange Connector for Evolution.

Hardware replacement
While using KDE or Gnome extensively requires a decently powered machine, the realistic hardware requirements for Linux are still lower than those for Windows, especially when you consider the requirements for Windows XP Pro. Because of this, Linux can be run on slightly less powerful, older hardware and can potentially increase the system’s lifecycle. Extending the years of use for hardware can be a serious savings opportunity for any organization.

The bad
Not everything is rosy when migrating desktops to Linux. The truth is that users are very familiar and comfortable with using Windows. A migration to Linux, no matter how well planned and delivered, is guaranteed to produce some negative (but possibly temporary) results. For example, while StarOffice 6 is an excellent program and works almost like Microsoft Office, the fact is that it works almost like Microsoft Office. Almost doesn’t equal exactly. There will be significant training issues associated with a migration such as this. The same goes for a migration from Microsoft Outlook to Ximian Evolution.

Also, the acquisition of new hardware and software is an investment for most companies. As such, if someone goes to upper management with a Linux migration proposal after the company has recently spent a lot of money migrating to Windows 2000 or Office XP, the chance for a positive reception is slim to none. If your organization just invested thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours upgrading to MS Office, it’s unlikely that management will be receptive to an OS upgrade that requires them to make yet another office suite migration.

How to make the convincing argument
For the IT support person to be successful in arguing that the organization attempt to migrate to Linux on the corporate desktop, I suggest the following:

  • Make sure the timing is right for such a change. Don’t make the request right after you’ve completed a major migration to a Windows platform.
  • Make sure your plan is realistic. If the entire business is based on creating Windows software for customers, don’t even bother!
  • Start with a pilot group. Don’t go to the IT manager and upper management and suggest rolling Linux out onto a large number of desktops. Instead, suggest starting with a small pilot group, such as some technology-savvy assistants or new hires, and make sure this group is extremely well trained and supported. Negative feedback can kill a project like this. Senior management knows that Windows is already working well in their enterprise and will probably not want to compromise that.
  • Get your ducks in a row. Before going to management, have concrete information about what software will be installed and be able to explain its parallel in the Microsoft Windows world.
  • If possible, try to have a cost/benefit analysis in hand. Money talks!
  • Speak plainly. Going to a nontechnical senior manager and explaining that Linux only requires 96 MB of RAM and a 200-MHz processor while Windows requires 128 MB and a 450-MHz processor won’t go too far. Adjusting the language for the audience is a step that cannot be overlooked.

Linux is gaining speed
The question “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” has been around for a number of years and will likely continue to be before it will become an accepted alternative. I believe that Linux will begin to very, very slowly usurp Microsoft at the desktop level by starting with small organizations that want to break out of the unending “upgrade and replace” cycle. With the advances being made in the Linux kernel, the desktop software, the applications that run on top of the hardware, and the efforts that have gone into making these new solutions interoperable with current systems, Linux is guaranteed to quickly gain speed in the enterprise.

Have you migrated to Linux?

If your organization is already running Linux on all or a limited number of desktops, we want to hear about it. What were the most significant problems during the migration process: end-user training, software compatibility, or upper-management resistance? How much did your organization save by going with Linux instead of Windows? Post a comment to this article and share your Linux migration experiences with TechRepublic members.