Six tips for Linux, open source desktop migrations

Experts and users share ideas, strategies for transitions of any size

Planning a migration from Windows PCs to Linux-based desktops is no small task. Here are six issues and strategies to consider before getting started.

2. Seek out and court power users

Power users who are running Microsoft Office, or other Windows-based productivity applications in an enterprise, are a powerful constituency that can sometimes make or break the success of a Linux migration project, says Greg Kelleher, senior program manager, Worldwide Linux Desktop Strategy, IBM.

"The power user has this impact across an organization, which is really amazing," Kelleher said, speaking at a recent conference on desktop Linux. For example, a power user in a corporate finance department may have created a special spreadsheet, with custom macros and tables, which is used widely throughout the business as an expense-report template.

The power user may not get any credit for it, and the IT or applications staff may not even know about it. But "if all the sudden someone's special spreadsheet doesn’t work, you're really impacting day-to-day business."

Identifying power users who have made custom code will help avoid such blunders. Power users also can be strategic advocates for a Linux desktop-migration plan, if they are included early in the process. These types of users sometimes act as "local" help desk or PC support specialist for a department, and often provide as much PC and application support to users as the IT department.

3. Survey users' apps to find 'show-stoppers'

If the user base has dozens of applications that have no open source equivalent, or would require major code-porting projects to bring to Linux, then a desktop swap is probably not worth it, says Jonathan Parshall, COO at CodeWeavers, a company that integrates Linux/Windows desktop software. "Look for situations where you've got one or two show-stopper type of application," he says.

If the problem is narrowed down to one or two applications, check out such tools as the WINE project, which provides Windows DLL emulation allowing Windows applications to run on Linux machines.

"This is doable for someone wanting to convert 1,000 desktops with only a few basic applications," Parshall says. "Someone wanting to move a few dozen machines — with dozens of can't-do-without Windows applications — should think about staying on Windows."

4. Make back-end moves to set up desktop Linux success

Certainly, a Linux desktop deployment will be challenging for organizations that are built largely on Microsoft Active Directory, or where servers are predominantly Windows-based.

"Even if you have a Windows-based file server, everything you need is on the Linux client to make it work well," says Tyler, the professor and author. "If you've built an LDAP-based directory structure, you’re in good shape for a mixed Linux/Windows environment." Networks based on Active Directory will have more work to do.

Vince O'Connor, IT administrator for the City of Steamboat Springs, Colo., is taking a kind of back-door approach to getting users onto Linux desktops. The first step was to install the PostPath Email and Collaboration Server. PostPath is a Linux-based e-mail server that emulates Microsoft Exchange servers and allows Microsoft Outlook clients to access mail, calendar and groupware features. Samba — an open source file-and-print server package — is an old standby for many IT organizations. It supports mixed environments, which O'Connor has deployed in anticipation of more Linux machines coming online, that also will have to share files and access printers used by Windows PCs.

5. Consider the devilish details

"One thing that is very important is to deploy the same, or similar fonts," Tyler says. "The Standard OpenOffice font set on Linux is reasonably close [to Microsoft's]," he says. However, for true compatibility, users can also get Microsoft Web fonts, which were made available few years ago from Microsoft. Although Microsoft has since withdrawn the distribution of these fonts, the license under which they were released allows them to continue to be distributed and used.

"This includes things like Arial and MS Comic Sans — all of those fonts that are typically found in Office documents," Tyler says. There are a number of sites that make them available.

Starting to migrate users to a document formats that works well across Linux, Windows and other platforms is another good step to take before making larger desktop moves, IBM's Kelleher says.

"Part of the strategy is not just the strategy of migrating end users and their applications," he says. "To take it to the next level is to think about file fidelity and document format."

A Linux desktop and its Windows-compatible, or nearly-compatible, applications may run well in a lab and provide low cost of ownership, but "it won't really meet the needs of the end-user . . . if you're in a big organization and the fonts don't come across on 10,000 documents. That's a substantial issue."

6. Don't have an agenda

"Our goal is to go ahead push out desktop Linux to users, but it's not a fanatical movement," O'Connor says. "Our IT department is philosophical about going 100% open source, but there are some very real-world constraints we're working with."

Instead of ordering 200 workstations with Linux preloaded, O'Connor is deploying a very limited number of desktops to a select group of office administrators. O'Connor says he and his staff avoid disparaging or promoting one operating system over another, and letting small groups of end-users see for themselves the differences, ask questions, and make suggestions on what might make it easier for them to use Linux.

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