Desktop Linux is solid, but a hard sell

Linux is ready for the desktop but enterprises aren’t quite ready for Linux, some industry insiders say.

It’s hard for most companies to make a business case to ditch Microsoft Windows in favour of the open source operating system (OS), according to Chris Gulker, Acrobat product manager at Adobe Inc. in San Jose, Calif., speaking at LinuxWorld Expo in Toronto last month. While the Linux desktop is stable, secure and capable, corporations aren’t exactly deploying it in droves, he said.

In that respect, he said, Linux resembles Apple Computer Inc.’s Mac OS X — another capable desktop OS that does not enjoy widespread corporate adoption.

The main reason, Gulker said, is people. He said the majority of users and IT staff are trained on the Windows platform, so a sudden migration to Linux without a sufficient pool of IT workers would drive up costs.

Companies stick with what they know and what makes users comfortable, Gulker noted. “Microsoft may not be the greatest business partner, but hey, it works,” he said.

Gulker explained that the adoption of any new technology always causes some productivity loss, and CIOs fear the loss would be too great. “Large corporations fear lost productivity even more than they like low costs,” he said. For instance, he said, when firms upgraded their desktops from Windows 95 to Windows 98, there were just enough changes to trip up the average user. Losing a week’s worth of productivity is enough to wreck a large company’s quarterly financial numbers, Gulker said.

According to the Adobe product manager, the best time to migrate to Linux on the desktop is when a company is thinking about upgrading Windows. It’s just about as much work to migrate to a new Windows version as it is to move over to Linux, he said He cited the example of Siemens Business Group, in Munich, Germany, which migrated to the Linux Gnome desktop with the Evolution e-mail client and

It found that the time required for user training was the same as for a major Windows and Office upgrade: two days — one day for the OS and one for the office suite. Overall, Siemens saved 20 to 30 per cent on administrative costs, 50 per cent on hardware and 80 per cent on licensing.

Major Windows upgrades tend to require a hardware upgrade but migrating to Linux does not usually require better hardware. This means companies can extend the life of their desktop PCs by one or two years, Gulker said. Canadian Tire Financial Services Inc. in Welland, Ont., is just undertaking its first Linux pilot: SUSE Enterprise Linux (SLES) 9 from Novell Inc. running on a blade server. The company is in the process of hammering out a Linux strategy and is turning to IBM Corp. for assistance.

Canadian Tire Financial is testing Linux to see if the company derives any cost savings from the open source platform, said Troy Michaud, senior infrastructure planner at the firm.

So far, Canadian Tire Financial’s Linux pilot has yielded only marginal savings on hardware; the licensing and support costs are similar to other platforms, Michaud said. Hardware costs are cheaper because Linux can run on any hardware platform, he explained. You’re not locked into a proprietary box and blade servers are very cost-effective.

Michaud is also investigating desktop Linux to determine whether it could be an area where Canadian Tire Financial could trim more costs. So far, he’s finding it difficult to get a definitive answer. Canadian Tire Financial has about 1,500 desktop users.

A home user of the Linux desktop for years, Michaud said he doesn’t need convincing that Linux is a good desktop OS. The challenge, he said, is to have a solid business case. “We need to make sure it’s to work with all areas of the business,” he said.

Linux desktop adoption in Canada so far has been minimal. A study from IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto shows that only 4.5 per cent of Canadian business have Linux deployed somewhere on the desktop.

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