Windows offers half-way house to open source

Open source may be synonymous with the Linux operating system, but today's IT managers are beginning to exploit the vast amount of free software available for Microsoft's Windows.

Derek Hinchliffe, Perth-based health, safety, and environmental consultancy MPL group's IT manager, began investigating open source on Windows about four years ago in an effort to curb rising software costs.

"We use Firefox regularly, GIMP (GNU image manipulation program) for image manipulation extensively, and open source PDF creation tools," Hinchliffe told Computerworld, adding that LDAPExplorer and Apache Tomcat are used on Windows servers.

Although Hinchliffe does not have a dollar figure on how much these free applications have saved the consultancy, use of the GIMP for "general" image work did allow the company to migrate away from Adobe's Photoshop.

Hinchliffe said with so much choice of free software on Windows it does open the gate for migrating to other operating systems, a move the company was "close to" but settled for a site licence with Microsoft instead. This was mainly due to the outcome of MPL's trial of OpenOffice.org, which showed it didn't support Microsoft Office's Word documents well enough.

"The OpenOffice.org suite was found to be quite intuitive and behaves better than expected," he said. "It's mainly the legacy document [support] issue but we review it regularly."

MPL is one of many local companies - including Australia Post, Janome, and the NSW Board of Studies - using open source applications on existing Windows installations which saves having to migrate the entire platform.

Hinchliffe recommends IT managers keep open source and free software in mind when looking for a solution, particularly for Web-based systems.

"I've often seen places go for a commercial solution where a free one would do the job just as well," he said, adding there is also a stigma. "The biggest problem with users is they don't understand there is a whole world of free and open source software out there. When it is not costing anything they get concerned because they don't understand the development community behind it that's perhaps better than commercial support."

Microsoft's platform strategy manager Martin Gregory said open source development projects target a range of operating systems and the fact that people want to build applications for Windows is good.

"[It] shows the broad acceptance of the platform and the broad support from developers," Gregory said. "The Windows platform has incredible advantages for all kinds of developers from hobbyists to professionals in reducing the amount of time on basic plumbing and focusing on delivering applications."

Still a few hurdles to overcome

While it may seem sacrilegious to most in the hardcore open source world, the number of community-developed software deployments on Windows is growing as users look for ways to get the benefits of open source without having to overhaul their IT infrastructure. But there are some hurdles. Most open source projects are rooted in Linux, so many lack the installers or drivers necessary to take full advantage of the features in the Windows platform.

Although users may get the performance they need from open source applications ranging from network services to Web servers to databases to application servers on Windows, they may spend much of their time recompiling code to link in more tightly with Windows-based services.

Eric Kuzmack, IT architect at news conglomerate runs Linux, Windows and Unix in the data centre. "When you install an application you should be able to utilize the installation capabilities of the platform. Today, that's not always built in for Windows," he said adding that documentation is often lacking for Windows deployments.

"While [OpenSLP] runs on Windows, there is virtually no information available for how to install and configure it on the Windows platform," Kuzmack says. "There is lots of information on doing it on the various Linux and Unix platforms, but to find out how to do it on Windows takes a fair amount of research."

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