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How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

By Craig Mathias on Wed, 01/02/08 - 8:31am.

Like a lot of companies, Farpoint Group closes between Christmas and New Years. Given that Christmas was on a Tuesday this year, that effectively means we shut down on the 21st and, well, we're sort of back open now, but things won't really be rolling again until next week. That's fine - like most of you, 2007 was so intense that a break is most welcome. But I'm personally not a big believer in formal vacations; I just need to work at something else, whatever that might be. Traditionally, the end-of-the-year shutdown has been spent re-building the network, installing new equipment, etc., which is always wonderful therapy for techies everywhere, despite the bad language sometimes involved. But the network itself required just about zero work this year; we converted to gigabit Ethernet last year and this year's activity was limited to adding just a little more .11n equipment. The big project, though, was re-thinking our overall computing philosophy.

I have been working on and with PCs since they were invented (the mid-1970s), and I some time ago came to the conclusion that they have outlived their usefulness. At least partially because of Microsoft's marketing practices and business strategy, the PC has become a bloated monstrosity that is cheap to acquire but very expensive to use. Vista seems to be a case of change for change's sake; there appears to be nothing new here that will make me want to either upgrade our XP-based machines or buy new PCs with one of the (far too) many versions of Vista installed. Indeed, if Vista is Microsoft's path to the future and offers essentially nothing (apart from increased training and support costs, dealing with application incompatibilities, and Lord knows what else), then our computing strategy may need to move in an entirely different direction. The first iMac arrived around Thanksgiving, along with two Macbooks. These are going to be used largely for media production (audio and video) for now, but we might convert to Macs entirely over the next couple of years. The Mac is fast, stable, easy to use, and, well, cool. It's got its own set of quirks, but, so far, so good.

Cool yes, but it ain't cheap. Macs cost roughly double to acquire what a PC does, although we hope to make that up on long-term operational savings. Still, is there another alternative? Well, I'm glad you asked because yes, there is. I have to admit I never really got it about LINUX, open source, and free software. OK, as  techie, I get it, but as a business person, such makes no sense. But the argument is basically that the economics of manufacturing and distributing software result in a cost that is close to zero. All we need are programmers who just love to practice their craft, everyone doing a little bit, and voilà, free software. Microsoft is terrified of this scenario, as they should be. But it is unstoppable. For example, assuming Google is successful with Android, as I think they will be, LINUX-based handsets could become the norm.

So, anyway, I loaded up the Ubuntu LINUX distribution, and I am so impressed I can't express how impressed I am. It installs like a breeze, it's easy to use (OK, a little background in UNIX is required, but this can be fixed over time), it's fast, and it includes everything one might need - the Firefox browser, OpenOffice, and a Virtual Network Computing (VNC) client (see here for an example, but there are lots of free and other distributions available). VNC is particularly important here because, using VNC, one can access other VNC-equipped machines, of any form, and control them remotely - just like Microsoft Remote Desktop, but platform-independent. So, put Ubuntu on your PCs, put Microsoft Office on your servers (if you don't want to use OpenOffice, which is remarkably good), and there you are - everything you need, with most of the software being, yes, free. Don't dump old PCs - recycle them as thin clients. And, yes, all of this works just fine over wireless - you can even get VNC for handheld devices; I'm not sure if this is a viable remote-access strategy yet, but I'm intrigued and will be investigating this option further.

Regardless, my guess at this point is that the Ubuntu strategy is going to work just fine. We plan on buying no new PCs at all this year, save for the possibility of a server to host the VNC server software, and Microsoft Office licenses as required, unless we cut over to OpenOffice altogether, which is TBD but certainly possible at this point. But we may be done purchasing new Microsoft operating systems and PCs to run them, and that is a thrilling prospect for the bottom line. Note that the VNC approach very much fits in with my vision for the future of mobility, thin clients accessing remote computational and data resources. I'll explain my reasoning here in more detail shortly, but, for now, give Ubuntu a try. I think you'll be as impressed as I am, and I am not easy to impress.