So you want to convert your business/office computers to Linux, but you're not sure how your employees are going to react, correct? Or you want to find out what's so good about Linux that makes it an appropriate OS (Operating System) for a business user? Well, you've come to the right place!
Linux is now entering the business market like never before, and some of the statistics I have seen on its growth are extremely amazing (more on this later). But first of all, what exactly is Linux? Linux is an OS which originally began as a home project for a young Finnish student named Linus Torvalds (you can see a copy of his renowned message to the comp.os.minix Usenet group here) - but talented programmers joined together to create the powerful, flexible, reliable, stable, secure, expandable, multiuser, multitasking, configurable and free OS called Linux.
What do you mean by “It's free”?
You will often see the expressions “free as in speech” and “free as in beer” - and it is safe to say that Linux is both of those.
Linux is distributed under the GNU General Public License, which means that anyone may copy, modify, distribute and even sell Linux without breaking any laws (as long as you freely submit changes to the source code to the community and do not alter the terms of the license).
On account of the fact that Linux is free (as in "speech"), there are many distributions of Linux – each of which may bring different applications, modified source code, another window manager, different tools and so on. Each distribution has unique characteristics and targets a specific type of audience. This is one of Linux's many beauties – you are free to modify Linux and create your own version. Free also means that you are not being constantly shadowed by the almighty Microsoft, who seem intent on making change to another OS a painful and irrational process.
If you are unhappy with the support you are getting or with the design of a certain distribution, then you can simply install another distribution which will better suit your needs. To summarize this in one word – freedom.
Free as in beer is a more complicated topic – because while you can download most distributions of Linux at the click of a button, this will still cost you: the time on your Internet connection to download the .iso; a CD-R/DVD-R to burn it to; the time taken for the .iso to be burnt, and so on.
Yet, you may be confused when you stroll into the local computer shop and you see a Linux distribution like Mandriva or Suse on the shelves. But didn't I just say that Linux was free? Yes, but having these boxed sets means that you get a couple of books containing good documentation (I noticed this clearly in Suse), support if you ever need help, the pre-made Linux install CDs (useful if you only have a 56k Internet connection), and a bunch of other stuff. Buying a Linux distribution also helps to keep them going financially, so that the main developers can still earn a living while taking part in an immense Open Source project.
So, what are the advantages?
Many people say that Linux is hard to install – but that is only because they have never tried installing Windows. The chances are that you will be able to install Linux much easier than Windows, especially with the distributions which have graphical installers (like Mandriva and Suse). Linux – like any other Operating System – is not perfect, but I shall try to outline its most important characteristics.
Linux's stability makes it one of the most enticing Operating Systems for a server – which need all the reliability and efficiency they can get. Linux users enjoy talking about running weeks, months, and even years without rebooting. This is what every PC user envies. The classic "Blue Screen of Death" is not part of the Linux vocabulary, and never in my time of using Linux has it crashed. Sure, the odd program has decided that it should freeze up every once in a while, but quitting them is simple – either by clicking on the "Force Quit" icon and clicking on the frozen application, or by typing 'kill app' into the terminal – and I've never had one seize up the whole system with it.
Under the pretty cover of the GUI, Linux can provide all the power, functionality and flexibility that you will ever need. If you would like to do something which none of your installed applications can, then writing a simple bash script or Perl/Python script is easy – and it will allow you to do almost anything. Think of all the Linux-powered servers in the world which are transporting information across the globe – even think of the one which is allowing you to view this article – and then you will realize Linux's true power.
It is time for you to throw away your antivirus, firewall, adware/spyware removers and your Windows partition itself – Linux doesn't need any of these. Of course, Linux isn't entirely immune to viruses or subtle backends, but you would have to almost be looking for one if you wanted to catch it. Linux's design model is built around the concept of security, and so the threat of viruses are almost non-existent in the Linux world. Security flaws are widely announced, and any threats to security are covered rapidly and effectively. If there is a risk to your system, it is likely that a security update will be available by the following day – and you will not need to wait until the release of the next 'Service Pack' until you receive it.
Windows has a very high price tag, and you usually only get a 60-day Microsoft Office trial with it. Have you ever wondered about getting an OS and excellent software without spending a single penny? Well, you can do just that – new software and updates are available to the Linux community for free, and the only cost may be the time you spend on the Internet downloading the applications. So what would you like to do with your computer? If it's for a business, then there is Firefox for browsing the Internet; the OpenOffice.org suite – which is compatible with the Word, Excel and Powerpoint formats – for documents, spreadsheets, presentations and much more; and thousands more applications which are extremely useful.
The wide variety of applications is also another thing to consider, and to put this into context: I prefer using AbiWord and Gnumeric to using OpenOffice.org Writer and Calc – but this is just a matter of preference. For a comparison of Windows/Linux applications, please see the Table of Windows software equivalents on Linux.
Microsoft recommends using one server per major process on Windows, because if not the server may not be able to run the processes efficiently and will be more vulnerable to crashing. Linux tends to bog down if you have a few hundred processes running, but even then it is unlikely to crash. Once again, Linux proves its capabilities – and this time as a server, which you may need in your business' private network for whatever reason.
For The Weak And Strong
Linux will run marvelously on both an old, decayed, 500MHz processor and on the latest 64-bit Intel Xeon processor. Quite naturally, the former will only be able to run using the Command Line Interface (CLI), while the second could boast its raw power in the Graphical User Interface (GUI) with a window manager like KDE. Linux, as stated, has been able to run at a 64-bit level on 64-bit processors for quite some time now – Apple has only just begun to support Intel processors (and therefore 64-bit processors other than its old PowerPC ones), while Windows' 64-bit Operating System still doesn't have a final release date (they have recently released a 64-bit version of XP though as a kind of “temporary fix”).
No Licenses Required
When using Linux, you don't have to worry about whether you have used an application's 'Serial Key' once too many, or whether you've kept a copy of the original OS license, because the GNU GPL means that you are legally allowed you to throw away your worries and forget about these petty things. You are entitled to copy and distribute your Linux CDs as freely as you wish.
However, some Linux applications are commercial and cannot be distributed in the same way that Linux can be, for the simple reason that they are not under the same license. For example, some games are not covered by this license, and other commercial applications like StarOffice are not either. Whether you are buying or downloading software for your computer, you should always look at what license it is covered by.
Linux seems great! So what's the bad news?
As I was saying, no Operating System is perfect. Even with the mighty power and stability of Linux, there are some disadvantages which you should consider before doing anything else.
Linux hardware support is much better than claimed. If you take into account all the different kinds of processors which Linux is able to run on (x86, PPC, SPARC, etc...), you can truly appreciate the large hardware support base it has. Alas, there are some devices which are designed specifically for Windows, and while the Linux community does strive to bring out compatible drivers for these, certain printers/scanners/faxes have limited support under Linux (you may want to check out the support for these in your office by using a Live CD).
However, if you spot a new peripheral in PC World which you are tempted to buy, buy it – because chances are that a Linux developer somewhere around the world has his eye on the same thing. That is the beauty of Linux: the sheer number of hardware devices and peripherals it supports means that you won't need to be fishing around in your dusty drawers any more for a scratched and worn driver disk – because the device will usually work upon "plug and play".
Baby Duck Syndrome
The Baby Duck Syndrome is quite well known, and to quote IBM: "it's what happens when users judge new and upcoming systems by comparing them with the first system they learned. This means that users generally prefer systems similar to those they learned on and dislike unfamiliar systems." You can never be sure that your employees are going to like Linux because they're already used to the look and feel of Windows. Sure, you can try to convince them to use it (one method that works for me is saying: "It's the new version of Windows" ;-] ), but they may be skeptical of anything other than their “favorite OS” thrown in front of them. They will have to do a bit of relearning and should explore the system to understand how to use it, but in the end it will be for the better. Most of the skills they learned with their previous OS will still apply, but it's more a matter of learning how to hone those skills in Linux.
There is an enormous amount of software available for Linux, therefore if you want to download a new application it is as simple as browsing Sourceforge.net for it or searching Google.
But, there are some applications which are designed with Windows directly in mind which do not have Linux versions. This is already starting to change, and commercial Linux games and applications are now starting to appear as Linux expands and grows in popularity. Yet if you have the new version of Adobe Photoshop which only works on Windows, do not throw the copy away just yet. You can still get it running on Linux.
What does this all mean?
How will this increase the employees' productivity?
First of all, the increased stability means that you aren't as likely to have the program crash on you. Where on MS Word I've been typing up a document and it has crashed - losing everything I've written (partly my fault for not saving it), I have never had OpenOffice.org lose my documents on Linux. You may not believe it, but it's true. Another thing to consider is the increased security - if one of the employees has a highly confidential document on their system, then it will be considerably harder for a cracker to break into their system than a Windows one (this topic has been subject to many arguments over the years, but if the United States Military use Linux, then it must be quite secure).
In the short-run, it might actually hinder their productivity rate because they will have to adapt to the new environment, but then things will run much more smoothly.
How will this benefit the company?
No more paying for licenses. The total costs of licenses for some of the companies I've seen are enormous, and this is why I tend to bring this issue up - because as you may or may not know, each licensed copy of Windows XP Pro costs £285.99, and each copy of Microsoft Office 2003 costs £345.97. So, if you have 20 computers in your office, you would have to spend £12,639.20 to legally upgrade them all. Alright, maybe you have already done that - but are you really willing to spend that much money again when Windows Vista and the new Office come out? I didn't think so.
The company's information will also be more secure because their employees' systems will be, and so harmful leaks will be far less likely to occur.
I have tried to summarize the main advantages and disadvantages posed by using Linux as a business desktop Operating System, and I hope that you can use this information to compose a persuasive Linux Business Case. I wish you the best of luck, and please leave a comment with any results!
- The US Military use Linux as their main Operating System, as do the US Postal Service;
- The fastest 10 supercomputers in the world run on Linux (except the fourth, which runs on Super-UX – a different subset of UNIX);
- The Mexican Government runs Linux on all its computers;
- The city council in Munich, Germany has dropped Windows in favor of Linux to run on its 14,000 computers (more...);
- Paris is still deciding whether to switch its 17,000 workstations and 400 servers to Linux instead of Windows (more...);
- The city council in Rome has also decided to convert its computers to Linux (more...);
- In the regions of Extremadura and Andalucia in Spain, over 200,000 Linux desktops have been dispensed for approximately 400,000 students (more...);
- Some GNOME deployments (not necessarily Linux).
 - Linux is (technically speaking) the kernel, and not the Operating System. The OS as a whole should be called GNU/Linux. More information on this can be found on the following GNU page.
 - If there are any Windows applications which you have paid for and would like to get running on Linux, then you may like to take a look into Wine, a Windows emulator. Alternatively, there is a more reliable emulator called Win4Lin, although this may make a slight hole in your pocket – however small it may be.
 - Read IBM's article on Baby Duck Syndrome.
 - So, how are you going to make the switch to Linux a smooth ride for your/the employees? Feel free to try other methods, but here's one which worked for me:
First of all, install Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice.org on their Windows computers, and let them work with the new apps for a while. Add the IE View Extension to their Firefox installations in case they need to access any IE-only sites.
Teach them how to do simple things in OO.org Writer like: changing the font and color of the text, tabs, the highly useful window: Format->Page... to alter page settings, and any other parts of a word processor which they may need to use.
Then, in OO.org Calc, teach them how to do all the things they did in Excel: =sum(), =if(), formatting cells and page layout, etc... They need to feel comfortable using these applications. If you yourself aren't a “master” of OO.org, then you may like to read through the documentation.
Let them use these applications for a few days, and only go onto the next part when they feel at home with the new apps. Ok, now is the time to test out their newfound knowledge. Download a good Linux distribution (my personal favorite is Ubuntu, but I find that newbies tend to get along much better with Mandriva 2005 LE), and burn it to a CD/DVD.
Right, now set up a dual-boot on each of the employees' computers – this will be their 'Linux trial period'. If you're not sure how to do it, then Google it. Once the distribution has been set up on their computers, run 'sudo gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst' in terminal (this only applies if you have installed Ubuntu – for other distributions, either ask on LQ.org or contact me). Then, in the menu.lst, set the timeout to '0'. That way, they won't have enough time to boot into Windows and it will go straight to the Ubuntu GDM.
Good! Now, teach them how to navigate their new system. Explain how to open up Firefox, OO.org, and other useful apps, and watch as the realization that they've just been using those same apps sets in. Hopefully, they'll grow to love Linux the same way I and many others like myself have.
Have a poll at the end of the trial period (which should last 4-5 days). Weigh up the results of those who for voted for Linux, and those who voted against. Finally, do whatever the results show – if they don't like Linux, delete the partition and resize Windows to the full disk size. If they do like Linux, then get rid of Windows and resize Linux to take up the full drive.