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We’ve done WHAT?
Yes, most of our office PCs are running Linux.
In a small town in Kansas, a 400-employee manufacturing company has switched 2/3 of its desktop and laptop PCs to Linux. Why did we do this, how has it worked, and how did we accomplish it?
As the release of Vista and Office 2007 neared, we looked at several unattractive scenarios: supporting Vista alongside XP on our network, migrating everyone to Vista at some point, and trying to stay with XP as long as possible.
Tired of being stuck in the maze of entagling requirements (software X only works with XP, program Y only works with Vista, and Microsoft’s upgrade agenda doesn’t necessarily match ours), we decided to look at Linux. Linux performed much better than Vista on our then-standard hardware, and would save us over $300,000 in direct costs alone compared to migrating to Vista. We also saw some tremendous potential for benefits down the road in IT management and worker flexibility and productivity.
Making It Work
To make this sort of project work, you need to have a top-notch solution in three areas:
We started with desktop PCs. We chose to base them on Debian, which we already have experience with. We use systemimager, which gives us a 4MB ISO we can pop in any PC, boot from, and have it come up to a full installation in about 15 minutes. We wrote some scripts that automatically check for and apply updates. We also made some small tweaks to the system so that it autodetects video hardware on every boot, so a single image can work on a wide variety of hardware.
We mount user home directories over the network with NFSv4 and use LDAP for authentication. That means that all of each user’s data is stored on a server, making backups a snap. It also means that any given person can sit down at any Linux PC and have all their settings and documents with them. If their PC dies, that’s no big problem. We bring up another one we’ve got sitting on a shelf and diagnose theirs later. Each PC has a bit-for-bit identical image, so this works easily. We highly recommend this approach. It makes things so simple to manage and work so well.
We use OpenOffice on the PCs, with the OpenOffice.Org builds instead of the Debian builds because we needed some features faster. There are of course minor formatting issues with opening some old Office documents, and some training for how to save things that others can read.
We initially used GroupWise and Evolution for our calendaring and email solution. We found both GroupWise and the GroupWise plugin for Evolution to be unstable under production use, and have switched to Thunderbird and EGroupware.
We also have a Windows terminal server and use rdesktop to access the remaining Windows applications that our users still need.
What’s important to your company, and how will a proposal like this be judged?
At this company, from the CEO on down, IT is viewed as an investment, not an overhead. That $300,000 savings over Vista wouldn’t have mattered much if there weren’t other long-term benefits as well. We also have a long track record of successes with Linux, and in fact our phone system gained reliability when it switched from a proprietary PBX to a Linux one running Asterisk. And we have staff that knows Linux very well.
Different companies have different priorities and different ways of making decisions. Make sure you know what matters to your company. Does your company feel comfortable or nervous about Open Source? If it’s nervous, look at support contracts. How important is having the latest technology to your company? How important is security? Make the strenghts of your solution fit the goals of management.
How will the people that will be using this daily feel about it?
There are always people that don’t like change or are afraid of the unknowns. We had some people that were saying that Linux can’t even use a mouse and is all command-line. After we held a few demo sessions, that went away quickly.
Recognize that this is a natural reaction and deal with it politely.
Firm commitment from senior management will help this work well, too. Make sure the people at the top are on board.
Linux isn’t just a cheap OS. Leverage Open Source.
When we wanted to find a better calendaring solution, we found EGroupware. It did most of what we wanted, but had a few bugs in its interface to clients. So we fixed them and sent in patches. We’ve also released some of the software we wrote for this project under the GPL.
Keep an eye out for ways to leverage the benefits of Open Source. Here are some that we’ve found:
I have been working with Linux and other Open Source technologies since 1995. I enjoyed both the quality of the software, the cost, and the ability to work with the source code to learn and contribute.
In 1997, I joined the Debian GNU/Linux project as a developer. My ties to the community grew over the years; in 2004, I was elected President and Chairman of the Board of Software in the Public Interest, Inc., the nonprofit legal parent organization of Debian.
I also have written several books about Linux and programming. My most recent ones include the Linux Programming Bible and Foundations of Python Network Programming. I am currently working on Real-World Haskell for O’Reilly with two fabulous co-authors. This project is at www.realworldhaskell.org.
Since 2002, I’ve worked in IT for Hustler Turf Equipment, Inc. (Yes, we got the name before Larry Flynt). We make professional and residential lawn mowers, employ about 500 people, and have been growing rapidly for the last six years. We are a heavy Linux shop, running Linux on the majority of our desktops, servers, and even some handhelds. I led the deployment of Asterisk (Open Source PBX) for our phone system, Linux for our ERP system, and Linux plus OpenOffice and Firefox for our desktops. We’re at www.hustlerturf.com.