Linux in Government: Planning for Open-Source Application Deployments

by Tom Adelstein

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 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 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 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 on existing Windows desktops. Such an addition would allow office workers to become accustomed to the main applications they would use day to day. 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, 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.

Start Looking for a Linux Guru

Government agencies can get a head start on open source demand this year by hiring candidates with strong Linux skills. The market will surprise you when you start looking for people with essential Linux system administration skills, because they demand lower salaries than one might expect.

Good Linux people tend to have trained themselves and know how to work on other operating systems, such as Windows and UNIX. They also tend to know more about networking, desk-side support and trouble shooting than a typical Windows engineer does. Linux people also can mentor and train staff. In short, Linux gurus save you a lot of money, because they know where to find free software and how to use it.

One caveat: good Linux administrators typically do not have certification. If you specify certification in your job descriptions, prepare yourself for a letdown. Linux people rarely seek to prove their skills by taking exams. If you do find applicants with certification, you might take a cautious approach, as they often lack the depth of experience you probably need.

Final Notes

In future articles, we explain open-source alternatives in greater depth and show you how Linux can provide a low-cost and secure solution for government offices and agencies wishing for more security and increased productivity.

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant with Hiser+Adelstein, headquartered in New York City. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop and the upcoming book Essential Linux System Administration, to be published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has been writing articles and books on Linux since early 1999.

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