So You Want to Switch to Linux?

By Michael Pastore

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Depending on who you listen to, Linux in the enterprise is either an IT savior or something best left for tasks that are not among the most mission-critical. No less an authority than Gartner recommends that Linux be restricted to peripheral applications and low-end infrastructure tasks like Web servers, proxy servers, and caching servers. But an increasing amount of enterprise application vendors are selling and supporting versions that run on Linux.

Whether you are going to switch to Linux depends on a number of factors, including what industry you serve; what your IT infrastructure looks like now; what your IT infrastructure might look like in five years; your staff; and so on and so forth.

Rarely does the decision to switch operating systems have a right and a wrong. For some, switching saves money, for others it does not. For some organizations, switching creates headaches, for others it solves them. Switching to Linux rarely has to be done from top to bottom in an organization.

Recognizing how lost desktop users can be without Microsoft's Office applications, the overwhelming number of organizations choose not to implement Linux as a desktop OS, but rather keep their open-source secret within the confines of Geekville. Some heed Gartner's advice and use Linux for some of the more menial tasks, while a few have taken the complete Linux plunge.

A complete checklist of things to consider when contemplating a switch to Linux could go on forever and needs to be tailored to your organization's situation. That being said, there are some general areas that need to be explored. If nothing here dissuades you, then keep exploring Linux as it applies to helping your business. If you realize in the next few paragraphs that Linux isn't for you, I will gladly accept your gratitude.

Linux: What is It Good For?

Some areas of IT have found Linux the answer to their prayers; others have been much more resistant. If you're considering a switch, it's good to know where Linux has excelled for others or if you're going to be blazing a new path.

In addition to the aforementioned Web, caching and proxy servers, Linux seems to have found quite a bit of traction among multiprocessor environments, clusters, and IBM mainframes. If you're looking for an OS to use for your Web site hosting and maintenance, the LAMP (Linux, Apache, mySQL, PHP) platform has become a popular and inexpensive system to do just that.

Overall, enterprise applications have been slow to accept Linux. The same goes for small, vertical vendors that serve datacenters. If you're going to switch the OS you use for most of your applications, you have to consider where Microsoft fits into your organization. Do your employees need Microsoft software and all that it bundles? Do you develop software in your organization? What are you going to develop? Does it need the Microsoft application architecture?

Don't forget about your middleware. One systems administrator for a software company said middleware from third-party vendors runs between his company's product and Oracle, and it only runs on Microsoft.

Desktop users have been slow to adopt Linux because of the comfort level with Windows PCs and the familiarity with the applications, such as Microsoft Office. There are Linux-friendly applications such as OpenOffice that make desktop productivity with Linux easier for desktop users. There's also software from Codeweavers called Crossover Office that lets you run Windows-friendly desktop apps on a Linux PC. Nevertheless, desktop use of Linux is usually relegated to the most advanced techies in most organizations. But don't think you won't be able find Linux versions or alternatives for all the software you use now.

"I use a Linux workstation running RedHat 9 to do 99 percent of what I do," said Walker Seestedt, a systems administrator for an international software company with more than 3,500 employees. "I use Codeweavers' Crossover Office to run the company standard of Lotus Notes, Office, and of course, Photoshop. I use Crossover Plugin to play multimedia such as Quicktime. I use Mozilla to do Web-based stuff. Rdesktop handles MS Terminal Server machines; Citrix has a native client for Linux and I use that to administer those machines. Gaim handles instant messaging. The X server handles Oracle installer apps and Oracle Database Enterprise server clients to display on my Linux workstation."

In addition to your applications, what type of industry are you in? If you're in education, for example, you're always on the lookout for ways to save money, so Linux, as free software, naturally appeals. On the flipside, Microsoft is known to offer steep discounts to educational institutions.

Michael Surran, network administrator at Greater Houlton Christian Academy, a K-12 private school in Houlton, Maine, switched all of his school's desktop computers and servers to Linux. It was cost that first made Linux an appealing alternative to Microsoft.

"It was also during this time that technology news was full of reports of Microsoft auditing schools [for software registrations] and fining them for not having every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed," Surran said. "This made Linux very attractive to me as an administrator."

As for hardware, a good time to switch to Linux is when you're buying new hardware. In addition to buying hardware loaded with Linux, there's also an opportunity to buy hareware "bare bones" and put Linux on it. This could potentially save some money.

Does Anyone Here Know Linux? Anyone?

Your IT staff and its collective skillset should be examined closely before adopting Linux. Certifications in Linux are available, and it's always handy to have someone who is certified on staff.

Depending on the background of your staff, re-training costs could be high. Switching from a Microsoft environment to Linux can involve costly re-training. Switching from Unix to Linux is a much more fluid process, and is generally easier on the staff. Since Linux can be had for free, many IT professionals tinker around with it in their spare time or at home to gain familiarity and slowly adopt business applications.

"I installed Linux at home to see just what software was available, and I also set up some computers at our school to test Linux in a networked environment," Surran said. "I ran this test equipment for nearly four months before committing to the switch."

Time is Money

It's not that adopting Linux takes longer than any other major IT project, but large migrations of anything are particularly labor-intensive. Do applications have to be taken offline? How will productivity and business processes be affected?

Once the choice has been made and you're on the Linux bandwagon, some Linux advocates say you'll save time by running Linux. Linux is certainly scalable, so if your needs are going to grow fast and you think you'll be going through Microsoft equipment left and right, then Linux may be the answer to saving time and money.

Some Linux fans also say that getting out from under Microsoft's constant line of fixes, patches, and security service packs will save you time in the long run. But the reality is both Microsoft and Linux distributions have service packs and patches.


The debate over the security of Linux compared to Microsoft can go on forever, so we won't dwell on it too much except to review the common arguments.

Microsoft is a popular target with hackers worldwide, no one doubts that. Every OS has its holes. There are more Microsoft installations, so there are more opportunities to cause trouble. Threats against Microsoft are more publicized than those against Linux and competing operating systems.

A different philosophy goes into the way Microsoft programs its software. Microsoft apps are designed to facilitate the sharing of data at the desktop level. This means there are inherently more holes in Microsoft than Linux. But that's also why Microsoft applications are useful and popular, which is another reason they are targets. It's a vicious circle.

IT managers know the level of security they are expected to have in their organizations. There is one last tidbit you may want to consider, and we'll leave it up to you to decide how to take it: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security runs Linux.

Can I Get a Little Help Here?

Much like security, support is an area where individual results vary. As a company that makes money selling software — a job that is made infinitely easier if its customers are happy — support is a big part of Microsoft's strategy. As part of that, Microsoft usually supports its products for longer than commercially available implementations of Linux, such as Red Hat.

Of course, thanks to companies like Red Hat, the idea of Linux users being alone in the wide world of free software is fiction. There are also the vast user groups of developers and Linux pros online willing to help. If you're exploring a switch to Linux it's a good idea to examine how much support you ask for from your current vendors, and how helpful it is. This is another area where Linux experience on your staff and a certification will come in very helpful.