Linux for the Long Haul
Five years ago, I made one of the greatest life-changing decisions in my career—I switched my organization to the GNU/Linux operating system and supporting applications. It's not uncommon to read about businesses, schools and other organizations making this switch; however, what happens afterward? How do users adjust, and what about this total cost of ownership (TCO) we always hear of? Is Linux really ready for the desktop? Was it worth it to make the switch?
In 2002, Greater Houlton Christian Academy (GHCH) adopted Linux; you can read the details as to why and how in the February 2003 issue of Linux Journal. It's not an exaggeration when I describe this as a life-changing decision, not just for me, but for the school as well. I used to be a die-hard, Microsoft fanboy; now I use open-source software almost exclusively. Our school, which once had a mish-mash of dilapidated, old, donated computers that barely worked, now is recognized as being a leader in our region because of our computer technology—all of this from that fateful decision back in 2002.
Five years after the article was published, I find myself reflective, pondering where we've been and wondering what the future holds. Did I make the right decision? Would I do it again? There's much to consider in order to answer all these questions. Because that decision initially was based on financial need, let's first look at TCO.
Sometime after we adopted Linux, Redmond released a study claiming that the TCO for Linux actually was higher than for Microsoft Windows—even though Linux can be obtained for free. Microsoft has been pushing this idea ever since with its “Get the Facts” campaign. Had such a study existed in 2002, I might have wavered on making the switch. After all, price was the driving factor for us to use Linux in the first place. In some ways, that initial decision was a desperate decision. Since then, I've had time to consider TCO. So, was Redmond right?
The initial switch saved us money, because it allowed us to put what funding we had directly into hardware while avoiding the Microsoft tax (pre-installed Windows on computers). In fact, we could not have upgraded our computers if we had to purchase proprietary software as well. That's not to say there aren't some hidden costs in having the IT staff install software on bare-bones hardware, but for us, the savings far outweighed any extra labor costs. What is more important, however, is how using Linux and open-source applications continues to save us money today.
But, before discussing this continued savings, I need to stress that software evolves. Applications improve, bugs and security holes are patched (hopefully), and new technologies emerge. With proprietary software, it can be years between major releases, and upgrading to that new release costs money. With open source, applications are improved all the time. After making the initial switch to Linux, one needs to consider how to keep up with the latest patches, upgrades and releases.
Being a tweaker who loves to squeeze every bit of efficiency from my computers, I was attracted to a distribution called Gentoo. Not only did it allow me to optimize Linux and thousands of applications for our computers, but also I found the package management system far superior to other distributions I had played with. It also forced me to learn the under-the-hood details about the Linux kernel, the GNU programs and many other OS management techniques that have helped me as a Linux administrator.
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