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Open Source Means BusinessOpen Source Means Business

Slowly but surely, companies are bringing open-source software out of the data center, onto the desktop, and into their employees' daily routines.

InformationWeek Staff

January 31, 2005

6 Min Read

Open source software is already powering computer servers at many organizations. Now with the growing popularity of programs like Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, open source is making new inroads on the desktop.

For example, according to WebSideStory, a Web analytics firm, Firefox has reached 5 percent of the browser market in just the past six months while Microsoft's Internet Explorer has dropped to 90.3 percent of the market. About 21 million people have downloaded Firefox. The Edvisors Network, a student loan technology company based in Quincy, MA, is running the Mozilla Firefox browser in combination with other open source programs. "We had always known Internet Explorer had security issues," says Christopher S. Penn, chief technology officer of the Edvisors Network. "But one day, trying to diagnose a performance issue on one of our PCs, we discovered 137 pieces of spyware running concurrently, turning the machine's performance into something that vaguely resembled molasses running uphill - in January." Spyware was bad enough, but as the Edvisors Network learned about the widening array of security holes in Internet Explorer, the company decided to move to Firefox. "We are a financial services company providing education loans to students, parents, and families, and we could not risk the possibility of sensitive financial data being captured by hackers," says Penn. Firefox provided better security, and the IT department had little trouble convincing users to switch. "In fact, people readily welcomed it," recalls Penn. One key selling point was the dozens of available plug-ins, including weather toolbars, search engines, page rank indicators, and ad blockers. In addition to Firefox, most users at the Edvisors Network have converted to Mozilla Thunderbird as their e-mail program. Open Source Advocates Face Hurdles
Firefox is, of course, only the tip of the open-source iceberg. IDC sees the share of Linux desktops increasing from 3 percent today to 6 percent in 2007. IDC also predicts that the market for Linux devices and software will accelerate from $11 billion in 2004 to $35.7 billion in 2008. Still, while some open source desktop applications are attracting users, they have yet to achieve critical mass. "There has been a bit of an uptake with Mozilla, but not much with OpenOffice or Linux," says Michael Silver, vice president and research director at Gartner. "More than anything, people are still kicking the tires." There can be substantial migration hurdles in organizations where users rely heavily on Microsoft Excel macros or Access VBA scripts that are hard to convert to other formats. "A lot of places want one-size-fits-all and at this point it's still Microsoft Office for most folks," says Silver. "In a lot of cases, these macros were written relatively informally but have become critical pieces of infrastructure. Rewriting them or replacing them is difficult." Chia, a Malaysian solicitor, has been using open source applications for more than two years. (He could not give his full name because of rules governing members of the bar in Malaysia.) His first experience with open source software came when he joined his old law firm and suggested to one of the partners that they "legalize" all of the software there. The partner agreed, but gave Chia just a tiny budget. Chia's brother had introduced him to Sun's free StarOffice suite, the predecessor to OpenOffice.org, and Chia tested it at the firm in a six-month pilot project. At the end of the trial period, only one of the six staff members decided to stick with StarOffice, but the rest insisted they wanted Microsoft Office. Not long afterward, Chia left to start his own practice. Again, cost was his main consideration. After familiarizing himself with various Linux distributions, including Mandrake, Red Hat, and Debian, Chia opted for Mandrake. His Intel Celeron PC now runs Mandrake, as well as the KDE environment, OpenOffice.org, Gnucash for his office accounts, GIMP for photo editing, as well as Kontact, Kmail, and Korganizer software. In addition, he employs an Acer laptop that dual-boots WinXP Home and Mandrakelinux. On that system, Chia still runs Microsoft Word, but mostly so he can double-check the look of his OpenOffice.org-produced documents before sending them to clients who use Word. Chia's secretary and clerk needed just one hour of training to learn OpenOffice.org. To encourage adoption, Chia did not provide the staff with a copy of Microsoft Office or Windows, so they had no choice but to use Mandrake and OpenOffice. "Now they confess to me that they love this combination. They never experience any Blue Screen of Death, and OpenOffice.org files are rarely corrupted compared to MS Office files," he says. "The PCs are also not vulnerable to virus attack." Keeping State Data Safe
Security is especially important in government offices. The city of Largo, FL, uses a combination of Windows, Linux, and Unix on its servers and desktops. On the desktop, Largo runs several open source applications, including the Gnome environment and OpenOffice. The city first migrated from Unix-based X thin client systems to another open source environment, KDE, before settling on Gnome thin clients. For its office suite, Largo switched to OpenOffice.org after Corel discontinued support of WordPerfect for Unix. Training users to switch to OpenOffice wasn't much of a problem. "Some power users made use of a few features in Word or Excel at home that work differently here, but there are workarounds 99 percent of the time," says Dave Richards, systems administrator for the city of Largo. "It's mostly just about learning new things." The transition from WordPerfect to OpenOffice went fairly smoothly, though users had to do without some features. "Even five to six years ago, WordPerfect had features that OpenOffice and Word still don't have, so it took a bit," recalls Richards. "But now it's very stable and quiet." Largo has about 500 active users running OpenOffice. Although Largo still runs Windows and Windows-based products on some of its servers, Richards' goal was to move the authentication, groupware, and office automation tools in Largo to Linux and open source. On the whole, he considers the move a success. For a Web browser, the employees use Mozilla Firefox, and for e-mail they run Evolution. And migrating the desktop environment was easy, both for Richards and for his users. "They only use it to change wallpaper, customize icons, and launch software," says Richards. "Gnome was well received, is stable, and looks nice." Richards has also shown other towns, such as St. Petersburg, FL, how they can migrate to open source. Migration can be a challenge if an organization doesn't have the right mindset. "The only way you can do stuff like this is for people to get out of the 1990s and be able to stop thinking they need Windows and PCs on their desks," he says. "That's the hardest part. It works far better this way, but it's a 'religious' issue for many." Not all organizations will have an easy time adjusting to open source on the desktop, because of old habits, existing licenses, and the need to trade files with other companies. While the user interfaces have improved, there is also a learning curve adjusting to any new software. But IT staff -- and users -- are welcoming the security and stability of open source applications.

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