Six tips for Linux, open source desktop migrations

How to move to open source

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.

1. Before Windows, go after Office first

Before you even consider Linux as a desktop operating system, install the OpenOffice application suite on end-users' desktops to give them a taste of open source software. Because Office productivity tools are the most common applications used by most corporate employees, it is more important to for users to get used to a new Office platform than a new desktop environment.

"Office users are certainly the low-hanging fruit" when it comes to picking out a user base to move to a Linux desktop," says Chris Tyler, a computer science professor at Seneca College in Toronto, and author of Fedora Linux: A Complete Guide to Red Hat's Community Distribution.

Users of Microsoft Office should have few problems getting used to OpenOffice equivalents of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Considering the recent redesign of Microsoft Office, "the learning curve of moving from older Office versions to OpenOffice is probably less than the learning curve if switching to the new Vista version of Office," Tyler adds.

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."

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