You’ve had enough. Your Windows PCs are becoming increasingly expensive to buy and support. The hardware requirements for Windows have grown yet again with the advent of Windows Vista. Changing anything on the desktops seems to lead to a long chain of unforeseen repercussions, patching them is consuming an increasing amount of IT staff time, and the cost of software licences is a big chunk of your budget.

What’s more, Windows PCs constitute a security risk. They act as magnets for the latest malware floating about on the Internet, and they’re hard to manage, leading to potential data leaks through uncontrolled access by memory sticks and the like.

While Microsoft’s Vista operating system does deliver some enterprise benefits, when the time comes for a hardware refresh, the opportunity exists to consider the alternatives. So, is there a path out of the Windows quagmire?

Out of the jungle

Linux advocates claim that the open source operating system is cheaper to run, both in terms of software licences and running costs. Clearly the former is true but, whether or not Linux reduces operational costs is debatable. A battle for hearts and minds has raged over the issue for the last five years, as independent analyst studies swing this way and that. Multiple conclusions from multiple studies suggest that Linux can be cheaper but that it depends on a number of factors, including business requirements, skills base, and size of installation. Others say Linux is more secure, simply because it’s not a target for most of the bucket loads of malware that Windows attracts. As to whether the OS is inherently more secure than Vista remains unproven. Linux includes a technology that claims to protect the system from attacks while Vista’s new security features are intended to offer similar benefits. However, it’s too early to say whether Vista can remain immune to the kinds of attacks that so troubled Windows XP.

Although Linux has a huge presence in datacentres, enterprises have been less enthusiastic about desktop Linux. Asked if Linux was on the radar for his company’s next hardware refresh, Voca CIO Nick Masterson-Jones says: “Not really. We have considered it but, like Windows, it is pretty complex for a desktop. I’d merely be swapping one over-complex solution for another. ”Ben Booth, CIO at Ipsos, where Windows desktops are the norm, was similarly lukewarm about a move to Linux.“We need too many of the features and connections to and from MS Office, also I think there would be issues around support and cost of ownership compared to Office,” he says. Such responses are typical. Analyst Ian Lao of In-Stat, reckons that: “Very few, if any, Fortune 500 corporations here in the States have implemented corporate wide roll outs.” Of those that do, Lao said that he expected there to be delays in any roll outs as organisations worked their way through the various complexities of implementation.

No hard evidence


And indeed, concrete examples of large-scale corporate-wide Linux desktop roll outs are few and far between. The best-known example is the city of Munich, while others include PSA Peugeot Citroën and Specsavers (see case studies on previous page and overleaf). What’s clear is that application availability and familiarity exert a major influence on operating system selection. Additionally, the cost of replacing one familiar but expensive desktop OS for another is prohibitive in an organisation of any appreciable size, and considerable financial motivation in the form of cost savings are required. But is that because the notion of a desktop, in the form of a computer under every desk, needs revisiting? There is growing interest in outsourcing desktop provision, also known as Software as- a-Service (SaaS); it’s roughly similar to the application service provision that flared and disappeared after the dotcom boom. What’s changed since then is the wide availability of high speed bandwidth over the Internet, as Quocirca analyst Bob Tarzey points out: “Ten years ago, there was no widely available mechanism for businesses to access software applications in remote locations over a standardised network.

Good reasoning

“There are, of course, concerns around security and network availability – these can be overcome, but to motivate businesses to switch to SaaS it also needs to be demonstrated that there are solid business reasons for doing so. There are three key drivers: managing business cost, increasing business value and decreasing business risk.” “The SaaS delivery model allows application and infrastructure costs to be spread over a period of time rather than paid for upfront. It also eases remote access to business applications and interaction between different organisations, both of which are increasingly required for many business processes.” In the real world, the issue is whether software dealers and/or service providers are able to offer services that at least match if not lower the cost of using on-premise software. In practice, software dealers seem to be pricing their offerings so that the differential is minimal.

It’s an issue that software dealers such as Linux market leader Red Hat are aware of. “Striking the right balance between on-premise and SaaS offering pricing is a challenge that we see many ISVs facing,” says Donald Fisher, Red Hat’s online VP.

However, Booth is less sanguine about SaaS in larger enterprises. “I think it will be [more] relevant to small and medium sized organisations. Larger businesses are more likely to move to an in-house CASE STUDY: SPECSAVERS model, perhaps based around thin client.” Serguei Beloussov, CEO of virtualisation software dealer Swsoft, says that this concurs with his conversations with enterprise customers, who are more likely to opt for an on-premise model of software deployment.

But others disagree and Masterson- Jones is among them. “Providing Softwareas- a-Service is key to our desktop strategy and is already in place with Microsoft SoftGrid providing on-demand streaming of applications,” he says.

“The beauty of our solution is that the applications are not only tailored to what users actually need (no expensive ‘standard builds’ that contain software that doesn’t get used) but also for when they need it so we can switch access to software on and off.”

The Google effect

Perhaps the most obvious proponent of online software provision is Google, which is making applications available online. It now has a full productivity suite on offer, free, in a package that’s closely analogous to Microsoft Office.

Lao says that he believes Google will make some serious inroads into enterprises. “Google and other similar companies which have disruptive business and usage models will definitely be big players as time goes on.” The delivery of applications over the Internet has its disadvantages, such as connectivity. However, many observers see this as the most serious challenge to Microsoft’s dominant position on the corporate desktop. Some even posit the end of the operating system.

Will enterprises find this method of software deployment attractive in the longer term? There are now fewer barriers but moving from an existing on-premise deployment is likely to be long and drawn-out.

As to the choice of operating system, Fisher is convinced that his company’s unique approach will win more advocates than Microsoft’s in the end. “Red Hat’s subscription model maps well to SaaS deployments because like the SaaS offerings, it is subscription based,” he says.

“It makes sense that many of the key advantages of open source – such as low cost, flexibility, security, agility – would apply equally as well or better in the SaaS model as they do in the traditional on premise model.

CASE STUDY: SPECSAVERS

Specsavers has migrated all its servers, desktops and tills from Microsoft Windows 2000 to Red Hat Enterprise Linux in its 830 stores in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Spain.

The high street optician selected Red Hat because it enabled the company to standardise applications on a dealer independent Java platform. Nigel Spain, Specsavers’ global architecture manager, says that Red Hat’s support and ability to provide systems and infrastructure design were also fundamental to the decision.

The company says it plumped for Linux because of its performance, reliability and security and lower costs.

Specsavers says it’s experienced a stable and future-proof platform, and has cut maintenance costs and increased reliability.

The desktops run Specsavers’ store application, ‘Socrates 7’, which previously ran on Microsoft Windows 2000. Specsavers is using Red Hat Satellite Server to monitor and update all Linux installations. It manages updates remotely and cuts the time required to install software patches.

“The Satellite Server is strategically essential for our operations; we can now automate our whole deployment and manage maintenance and updates centrally. This used to be completed manually by going to every single store one-by-one and delaying the process extensively,” says Spain .

CASE STUDY: MUNICH

The highest profile migration from Windows to Linux desktops has been undertaken by the city of Munich for its employees and citizens.

First mooted in 2002 and signed off in 2003, the move was called “the poster child for the desktop Linux movement” by Novell’s vice chairman Chris Stone.

So the city’s ageing Windows infrastructure was replaced with a Debian-based Linux distribution called LiMux, accompanied by OpenOffice, with IBM acting as the city’s integration partner. At a cost of some ¤35 million, almost all city workers’ desktops – some 14,000 workstations – will be replaced. Twenty per cent of the workstations won’t be converted due, says the city, to software interdependencies.

The last conversion is due to take place in late 2008 or early 2009.

Industry analysts say that a lack of adequate management tools is a major factor in slowing adoption of Linux on enterprise desktops. This was also the case for Munich, so the priority for the project’s managers has been to develop automated management systems, according to Steve McIntyre, a Debian developer close to the project. These allow IT staff to control access to resources such as printers and USB storage devices on a per-user, per-device basis for security reasons.

Then the project was delayed by a year as patent issues were resolved.

Additionally, negotiations with project partners were more complex than expected, which also led to delays.

Overall though, reports say the project is coming in on budget, and that the cost of training courses planned for end users, which was to have swallowed some 38 per cent of the budget, wasn’t as intensive as originally feared.

If the migration completes by next year as planned, it looks as if the aims of the city leadership, to become politically “independent of monopolists like Microsoft”, could be achieved.