Moving to Linux: slow-go or rip-and-replace?

Lots of governments, businesses and individuals are turning to Free Open Source Software (FOSS) during the global recession, according to a recently-released study. But how do you go about it? Do you stick a toe in the water, or dive in head-first to your new FOSS computing environment?

This article will help you think about the pros and cons of baby-stepping your move to FOSS, versus starting out from scratch with a brand new Linux computing environment. This article is aimed at new users, not experienced computer professionals. I will be illustrating the principles involved by giving examples two migration projects in which I have personally been involved: my own law practice; and a public middle school in San Francisco which is the subject of the Digital Tipping Point video project that I am producing.

You’re not alone in considering a move to GNU-Linux

If you are thinking of ways to save money by moving to GNU-Linux and FOSS, you are not alone. On March 16, 2009, a prominent IT research company by the name of IDC released a study showing that 2009 will likely see a 10 percent jump in the use of GNU-Linux in both servers (the machines that run business infrastructure) as well as desktop computers, which are typically used by office workers. The study found that the use of GNU-Linux was also going to grow in mobile devices and ultra-light weight notebook computers called “netbooks.” In fact, number 2 computer maker Dell has said that one-third of all its netbooks are already sold with the Ubuntu GNU-Linux operating system pre-installed.

And with good reason. When you buy a computer with GNU-Linux pre-installed, you get a lot of really good software that is comparable to applications that would cost you hundreds and even thousands of dollars in the world of Microsoft Windows or Apple. Do you need Adobe Photoshop? You could lay out a couple hundred dollars for that program, or you could use the GIMP, a Photoshop-like program that comes free with almost every pre-installed version of GNU-Linux (and is available as a free download for Microsoft Windows).

Microsoft Office will set you back another couple hundred dollars, or you could just start Open Office from your GNU-Linux desktop or download it for Microsoft Windows. And the list of Free Open Source Software substitutes for paid Microsoft Windows programs is quite large, indeed. Rolf Schuster, the former head of IT at the German Foreign Ministry, estimated that the German Foreign ministry reduced its IT expenses by two-thirds by switching to GNU-Linux, and on March 10, 2009, the French Gendarmerie announced that it saved $50 million Euros by using only FOSS.

So why isn’t everyone using it?

If Free Open Source Software is so good, why isn’t everyone using it? Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has made the point that licensing fees are a small percentage of the total cost of ownership. In reply, GNOME Foundation Executive Director Stormy Peters says:

“Over the lifetime of a machine, the licensing fee is just a portion of the cost of a machine. That said, it’s not an insignificant portion! Just by moving to OpenOffice individuals and small businesses can save significant money.”

In fact, Cathy Malmrose, the CEO of Zareason.com, a small computer builder who sells only Linux computers, points out that for individual systems, the cost savings of Free Open Source Software can be outcome-determinative:

“For small businesses and individuals, the cost is significant. For us, adding Windows to our systems would add $100 to each system. It would kill our company in short order. The cost is three-fold: initial license cost, increased tech support cost, and upgrade cost as new versions of the software are released.”

So how do you figure out whether the cost of the licensing fees and other costs of proprietary software is too much, versus the convenience of staying with the software you know?

Quantify it!

It is possible to add up all of the costs of your system and divide by the years of life you expect to get from that system, and there is a book by Maria Winslow that will help you do just that. Her book, called The Practical Manager’s Guide to Open Source, helps you break down your computer system into its various components, and compare the costs of buying and maintaining that system over its life. Her book comes with prepared spreadsheets, so that you can easily run scenarios of a proprietary system against the costs of a Free Open Source Software system.

Before you run off and start crunching numbers, though, it is helpful to take an overview of your system, and think about which systems are mission critical to run your business, and which systems are peripheral and non-core. Maria’s book will help you identify areas that you might be able to swap out, such as low-level knowledge workers, who might just need access to the Internet and can be easily trained to switch to Open Office from Microsoft Office, as opposed to your CEO, who has no time in her schedule to learn new software.

What emerges is that you are not looking at a binary choice of the devil or the deep blue sea in most cases. You are going to have the option of choosing the “best of breed” for each function that your computers serve. While it might not be pragmatic to move the CEO from Microsoft Office to Open Office, you might find that you can protect yourself against viruses by substituting Firefox in place of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE).

While quantifying the Total Cost of Ownership of your system, be sure to dig through all of your support costs, costs for anti-virus software, and be sure to calculate the downtime lost due to crashes with your system. Also be sure to factor in training costs for moving to new software in the future. For example, ask friends and colleagues how many of them paid for seminars either for themselves of their staff for moving from Microsoft Office 2003 to Office 2007, a move that saw the introduction of an entirely new user interface, called the “Ribbon” (or the Fluent User Interface), as well as confusing features such as Contextual Tabs and The Floating Toolbar, all features that would require Office 2003 users to take expensive training or lose productivity while becoming familiar with the new software package.

Many people make the mistake of assuming that time will stand still for their proprietary software packages, and they won’t require re-training as they upgrade from one version of a Microsoft product to the next. They assume that moving to Free Open Source Software tools will require extensive training, because, after all, it is a different system. But many users of the most recent version of Open Office who are transitioning from Microsoft Office 2003 will say that Open Office is more familiar to them than Microsoft Office 2007. Cathy Malmose, the Zareason CEO, says that they don’t really have problems with customers complaining that their Linux systems are “unfamiliar”:

“A few weeks ago, we had our first return with the ‘It was too unfamiliar’ comment. We are in our third year of business and this is the first time we have had this reason for return even though we make it clear that you can return your system for any reason, even the simplest reason of, ‘I didn’t like it.’ We want to make sure that people feel free to try something new and Linux might feel new to them. We happily granted the refund and perhaps when the Linux field is more mature, this person will try again.”

So the need for training from a proprietary package to a FOSS package might actually be less burdensome than a move from one version of a proprietary package to the next version! Be sure to factor in these hidden costs when quantifying your computer systems, and don’t assume that these costs will apply only to the FOSS computers!

Migrating my law office to GNU-Linux

My move from the Microsoft world to the GNU-Linux world was motivated by a fear of viruses. In the year 2000, I was hearing a lot of talk among my friends and colleagues about the slew of viruses that they were encountering. I was hearing horror stories about long waits for technicians to arrive; long waits on hold with Microsoft support; lost documents; and lots of downtime. I bumped into a computer systems administrator from another law firm on my floor who recommended that I might want to consider using Linux as an alternative to Microsoft Windows.

This systems administrator and I became friends and discussed Free Open Source Software over innumerable lunches and elevator rides. I began warming to the idea of not having to pay for anti-virus software or forced upgrade marches for software and hardware to accommodate what I saw as an arms race in computer hardware and software. I had come to distrust computer software salespersons, because I found that they often left out and misrepresented hidden costs of the software.

My new computer sys admin friend offered to assemble a new Linux computer for me out of parts that I purchased over the Internet. Back then, there weren’t so many vendors who would sell computers with GNU-Linux pre-installed. I took my friend up on his offer, and within a week, I had a new SuSE Linux computer. With the help of another Linux whom I met through the first guy, I was able to network the two computers so that I could pass documents from my Microsoft Windows computer to my GNU-Linux computer.

Lawyers use the same kinds of word processing documents over and over again. I found that I was able to save a document from Microsoft Word and open it with Open Office Writer with little trouble. I found that it was a joy to be able to cruise the Internet without having to worry about getting viruses. I was able to open other lawyers’ Microsoft Word documents without having to worry about whether those lawyers had kept their anti-virus software up to date.

I did have trouble with the loss of California Judicial Council forms. These forms are mandatory court forms that must be used in certain aspects of a California lawyer’s state law practice. I did experience a loss of productivity there, but I was spending a whole lot less time on the phone with salespersons when I had to purchase and upgrade software packages. The Judicial Council forms I was able to use by downloading them on-line and filling them out with PDF software programs that came free with my SuSE GNU-Linux distribution. I lost some of the automated features that the paid programs offered, but that time loss was probably off-set by gains made from not experiences crashes and losses of data associated with Microsoft Windows.

Within 6 months, I had moved my entire practice from Microsoft Windows to GNU-Linux. That was a relatively fast-paced migration, and it would not have been possible but for the fact that I did not have a lot of difficulty in convincing my “staff” to make the migration, since I am a sole practitioner. When planning your migrations, keep in mind the human element. Alexandro Colorado, the founder of the Open For Business service of the Spanish-language OpenOffice.es project, recommends spending time with the end users to make sure that they buy in to the migration:

“Migrating office suite software is a human migration more than a software migration; you need to change the minds of the staff before changing the bits on their computers. The ‘Humanware’ needs to feel informed, and know help is available and also their opinions about the move can be heard at anytime.”

How do you go about winning people over to a change of software? By appealing to key players and finding allies within the organization, as we will learn from my experiences in moving a small public middle school from proprietary software to Free Open Source Software.

Migrating a school: win over the principal and key teachers

In the spring of 2004, I noticed that a new public charter school had opened in my neighborhood of San Francisco. The school had placed an A-frame sandwich board on the sidewalk announcing that they were accepting new students. Public schools in California are notoriously under-funded, and so I saw an opportunity to present Free Open Source Software to the principal as a way of bringing low cost computers to the school.

I phoned the principal and scheduled an appointment to meet with her to discuss her options. She had no idea that Free Open Source Software was an option. She trusted Microsoft, and in fact asked if I had a grudge against Microsoft, since I was obviously offering an alternative that would cause Microsoft some serious competition. I told her that I was not so much against Microsoft as I was in favor of providing simple end users a free market choice of computing solutions.

The principal was not willing to consider moving her teachers’ computers from Microsoft Windows to GNU-Linux, but she did decide to spend $6,200.00 for a thin client lab with 24 thin client terminals and a server to allow the 10 through 13 year-old students to do Internet research and compose their essays. The principal saw her teachers’ work of grade keeping and reporting to be mission-critical to the success of the school, and she was not willing to risk a change in that area.

One would think that the task of educating the children was actually the “mission-critical” activity of the school, but the current focus in the United States under the Bush administration has been on rewarding schools that do well on standardized testing, and penalizing schools that perform poorly in that area. It was therefore more important to this principal that the students acquire basic reading, writing, and math skills; and that they be able to exhibit those skills on tests. So the low-cost GNU-Linux computers were nice, but they were seen as almost an extra-curricular activity, not a main pedagogic method or goal. We have been able to place a few stand-alone Linux computers in a few of the classrooms, but those machines are used mostly just for occasional Internet research and essay writing here and there.

One of the primary successes in this migration project has been convincing the principal and the teachers to use web-based calendaring, word processing and grade-reporting. Before the transition, the teachers and non-teaching staff used exclusively Microsoft Word, Microsoft Outlook, and Microsoft Excel for those purposes, along with Squirrel Mail for email. Now, the teachers and non-teaching staff use Google Docs for many of these purposes. The transition to cloud-computing for these purposes means that teachers using Macs or Linux computers have equal access to those functions. Google Docs is obviously a non-Free solution, but at least it means that Mac users and Linux users have equal access, which is a step in the right direction that has allowed the 7th and 8th grade science teacher to dual boot his notebook computer with Ubuntu GNU-Linux.

The migration of this single teacher’s notebook computer is probably the second greatest accomplishment of this migration, after the GNU-Linux lab itself. It means that this new principal has shown sufficient trust in GNU-Linux to allow a teacher to run at least some of his “mission-critical” functions on a Free Open Source Software platform. This teacher migrated to Free Open Source Software after a virus rendered his Microsoft Windows partition unusable. We wiped his hard drive to kill the virus, and then partitioned his hard drive so that he has access to Microsoft Windows and Ubuntu. He now uses the Ubuntu partition on a daily basis, and uses the Microsoft Windows partition only once a year in the spring in connection with a book publishing project for which the Free Open Source Software solutions are not as good as the proprietary solutions under Microsoft Windows.

This teacher liked the philosophy of Free Open Source Software before the viruses crashed his original Microsoft Windows XP partition, but not enough to commit a mission-critical resource, his notebook, to “the cause.” He was idealistic and pragmatic. It was not until a pragmatic need arose that he was willing to experiment with a new system. And that’s probably the wisest way to move to Free Open Source Software: do it when the need arises, and only after testing the water one step at a time, after lots of research and experience, and only when your end users are fully committed to the process.

by Christian Einfeldt, Producer: The Digital Tipping Point