Linux in Government: Planning for Open-Source Application Deployments

Linux desktop releases will be fast and furious in 2005. Here are some suggestions of what to do now so your office or agency can take advantage of them.

The next wave of Linux desktop releases will fit into Microsoft network infrastructures like a hand in a glove. Start looking for announcements in May. You will feel compelled by the Linux value proposition, so postpone Microsoft upgrades until you have had a chance to see the new products.

A recent article published on DesktopLinux.com says that Linux will command 6% of SMB desktops by 2008. The article sites four reasons for the increase in Linux desktop use:

Increasing cost of IT -- SMBs are ever more reliant on increasingly expensive IT products and services for managing their businesses. This expanded investment has resulted in higher expenditures, leading SMBs to seek free open source alternatives.

Open standards and freedom from vendor lock-in -- Open source software generally adheres to standards better than proprietary software, reducing reliance on vendor-specified file formats.

Government Policies -- open endorsement by Asian and European governments is giving credibility to Linux and open source.

Blue Chip support -- products and support available from brand-name vendors such as IBM, HP, and Novell lend credibility and increase confidence among SMBs.

We agree with much of this study, but we also see a major shift in strategic corporate initiatives that will increase Linux desktop market penetration to 25% within the next 24 to 36 months. The reasons given for a 6% adoption rate do not take into account Windows vulnerabilities and enterprise searches for desktop alternatives.

Studies of Linux desktop adoption make little sense without adding "other OS vulnerabilities" to the list of reasons for Linux adoption. Many organizations consider their Windows desktops to be a single point of failure in their enterprises.

CIOs of major telecommunication firms, for example, view the computing environment as a significant threat. As soon as customer service offices at these firms began accepting e-mail and using the Internet to manage phone accounts, they became flooded with spam, viruses, spyware and exploits. eGovernment initiatives, which also use e-mail and Web services, face threats similar to what these telecommunication firms and similar enterprises face, as they all experience heavy demand for customer service.

Original cost savings studies advocating a switch to e-mail, on-line support and eGovernment Web services rarely factored downtime into the costs associated with adding Internet services and using Microsoft Windows desktops. Considering the high volume of bad e-mail alone, workers have lost significant productivity. Several studies suggest spam runs as high as 51% of workers' total e-mail volume. In fact, a recent report by Frontbridge indicated that spam accounted for 90% of all e-mail at one point last August and averaged 82% for that month. Of that total amount, a significant percentage contained malware, which downloads a tiny program and broadcasts information about users and networks to crackers.

New Features and Functions Add to Linux Adoption

Many analysts claim that Linux desktops will experience troubles similar to Microsoft desktops once it gains market share. Such analysts, however, fail to understand the inherent safety features of UNIX, from which Linux derives much of its native security model. Separation of the desktop from the kernel, separate user space and the use of text-based interfaces provide added security to the Linux desktop. Furthermore, on new Linux desktops, that security design remains transparent to office workers.

The next wave of Linux desktops from firms such as Sun Microsystems and Novell will provide increased functionality within Microsoft infrastructures. Expect to see access to Microsoft's Active Directory, equivalent network browsing, single login features, full scale sharing of directories and resources and the ability to run native Microsoft applications. Additionally, video and audio functionality will be on par with Microsoft workstations. Access to Exchange servers and Outlook clients already has become common place on the Linux desktop, as have system management services.

Getting Prepared

Government agencies immediately can start the process of moving to open-source alternatives on the desktop. Begin by cutting the costs of your office productivity suites, and move to safer Internet browsers and e-mail clients. Also, begin investigating different application delivery methods, such as Citrix, Tarantella, Microsoft Terminal Server and Sun Microsystems' Sun Ray thin-client solutions.

Let's examine what we can do immediately with open-source office productivity suites, the Mozilla Firefox browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client. In 2004, we saw the OpenOffice.org office suite take approximately a 16% share of the total office productivity market. With the release of OO.o 2.0, one can expect that share to increase significantly in 2005. The Guide to New Features demonstrates major improvements in interoperability with Microsoft Office. Considering the success of migrations such as Novell's to OpenOffice.org last year, expect further movement to this office suite as OASIS Open Document compliance is attained. In fact, another article, published in the Guardian Unlimited, states, "Installing OpenOffice, a free open source alternative to Microsoft's Office suite, could be the first cost-saving move to loosen the US giant's grip on the UK schools market."

One way to prepare for the switch to the Linux desktop involves adopting OpenOffice.org on existing Windows desktops. Such an addition would allow office workers to become accustomed to the main applications they would use day to day. OpenOffice.org can coexist with Microsoft Office and allow users to increase compatibility with various versions of Office.

Another way to prepare users for Linux is to adopt Mozilla's Firefox Browser, as discussed in Walter Mossberg's article "How to Protect Yourself From Vandals, Viruses If You Use Windows", published in the Wall Street Journal's Personal Technology section. Also consider using Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail client. According to the Web site:

Thunderbird gives you a faster, safer, and more productive email experience. We designed Thunderbird to prevent viruses and to stop junk mail so you can get back to reading your mail. Read on to find out more about the reasons why you should use Thunderbird as your mail client and RSS reader.

By deploying OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Thunderbird, you can enhance the safety of your existing Windows' desktops and prepare for a transition to Linux. You also can continue to reap benefits from your hardware investments without having to replace existing computers--a benefit often overlooked in studies of Linux cost-benefit ratios.

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Before Deployment

Bob Kerr's picture

To help with a smooth transition and training it is a valuable excercise to give out Free software to your users before migration and deployment. Giving out copies of TheOpenCD

http://theopencd.sunsite.dk/

complete with appropriate liability statement, will not only give your users a first look into some of the programs that they may be using but also start them understanding the philosophy behind Free and Open source software. By helping their neighbours, family and friends will help them understand why the migration is taking place.

Migration planning

Doug St. Julien's picture

If you filter out the distro specifics ( DO NOT discount Novell SuSE as a viable supported option!), Novell's site has some excellent planning insights that are generally applicable no matter what distro you go with.
http://www.novell.com/linux/migrate/

Re: Start Looking for a Linux Guru

Anonymous's picture

Tom,

you're the first person who mentions the fact that people with Linux skills usually don't have certification. I think it's really important to show governments that there are a lot of people around having much more knowledge than expected.

Thank you for these words.

It is true that the certifica

Anonymous's picture

It is true that the certificate does not mean much, but you will need a way to show people your experiences. A good way is to participate in some open-source project which there are plenty out there. Helping open-source development will help yoour resume looks much better.

A certificate does not mean much

Hermann Peifer's picture

This is indeed true. A true Linux guru's qualification can be easily checked via a Google search. For me, this is the easiest way to verify what people have done recently.

Hermann

Re: Start Looking for a Linux Guru

daemons_advoc8's picture

Certification is not important, the most important thing is that you can do evrything under the sun even without certification.

Linux Guru and Certification

Amy Wohl's picture

Starting last year I began to hear from several groups (certification groups and Linux training groups) suggesting that they're looking at how to provide appropriate Linux certification. I think we'll start to see some this year.

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