SmartAdvice: Do Up-Front Analysis To Make Sure The Linux Desktop Suits Your Work Environment - InformationWeek
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SmartAdvice: Do Up-Front Analysis To Make Sure The Linux Desktop Suits Your Work Environment

Before migrating desktops to Linux, consider integration headaches and whether initial licensing savings will be offset by reduced vendor support, The Advisory Council says. Also, plan for change management so the words 'scope creep' don't strike fear into your heart during new projects.

Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers three questions of core interest to you, ranging from career advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to

Question A: What does it take to make moving some of our users to a Linux desktop platform work?

Our advice: With the rising cost of maintaining the proprietary Microsoft desktop platform, more companies than ever are seriously considering alternatives for their staff's desktop system. There's no doubt that Linux works; the millions of TiVo boxes and other Linux-based appliances on the market are proof of that. However, your company needs to commit to some initial development and integration work to confirm that Linux will be successful in your specific computing and application environment.

    Linux Advantages
  • Substantially reduced initial software costs due to reduced need for Microsoft software licenses
  • Creating a locked-down desktop image minimizes customer support calls (although one also can do that with Windows)

    Linux Disadvantages
  • Lagging hardware vendor support
  • Higher staff training costs--Linux isn't the de facto standard, so it requires in-house training resources rather than relying on commonly available skills
  • Higher application certification and integration costs
  • Nonstandard office-automation tools and potentially minimal application vendor support

If the only reason you're considering a Linux desktop platform is to cut costs, then the project must overcome considerable technical and operational obstacles to be a success. Any initial savings could easily be offset by reduced vendor support for Linux on all but the most standard components, and the higher integration costs associated with the application certification and image creation process.

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From the application perspective, the issues quickly become far more complex. Many browser-based applications rely on proprietary features of Internet Explorer, which will cause integration headaches. The Linux desktop environment "look and feel" is significantly different from Microsoft's de facto standard. Migrating desktops to Linux only makes sense in a very narrow, limited range of situations where the user will be spending most of his or her workday in familiar applications rather than using standard desktop-automation tools.

From the operational perspective, sticking with standard applications--Web, terminal emulation, and E-mail--will minimize training efforts for users, since these applications are similar enough to the more familiar Microsoft products that the majority of users will have little trouble. For example, most Internet Explorer users will easily learn Firefox. The IT support staff could be cross trained or segregated, depending on the exact staff mix and existing support service-level agreements. Linux skills generally command a premium in the market, since they're usually associated with server administration, which might swing the decision toward in-house training.

Financially, the jury is still out on the hard cost savings, once you've added the integration, development, and training costs and subtracted the Microsoft license costs. Since the initial cost of a desktop only represents 20% to 30% of the total cost of ownership, other factors will dominate the decision.

You need to look carefully at the user requirements before committing to such a project. If a user group can be identified that needs a low-function, locked-down system, and if you can overcome the significant application-integration issues, a Linux desktop might make sense.

-- Beth Cohen

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