'It was a huge risk': How the end of XP support helped France's gendarmes embrace Ubuntu – fast

'It was a huge risk': How the end of XP support helped France's gendarmes embrace Ubuntu – fast

Summary: The gendarmerie will have a fleet of 72,000 PCs on its own Ubuntu distro by next summer, as a result of the looming XP deadline.


The French gendarmerie began its switch to Linux almost 10 years ago: plans to expand the use of productivity tools in the force while at the same time keeping a lid on costs meant that proprietary software was given the boot.

In 2004, the gendarmerie — France's military police force — announced it would begin moving thousands of PCs from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice, and adding the open source suite to new PCs: from a base of 20,000 Microsoft Office-equipped machines, the gendarmerie intends to have 72,000 on the open source equivalent by the time the migration is complete next year.

2005 also saw the gendarmerie switch its default browser from IE to Firefox, and start using Thunderbird for email. By 2007, GIMP and VLC had also made it onto gendarmerie PCs.

But it didn't stop there. In 2008, the OS was targeted for an open source transition, with Ubuntu in the frame. At first, 5,000 PCs were transferred over as a test rollout — described as the "handcrafted phase" — and in the years that followed, the "industrialised phase" started, as another 30,000 or so made the change.

According to squadron leader Stéphane Dumond, of the French interior ministry's technology and IS services department, there are now 37,000 PCs running GendBuntu, the organisation's Ubuntu LTS distro featuring gendarmerie-specific apps, and there will be 72,000 by the time the rollout is complete next summer.

This last phase of the project marks a massive acceleration in the pace of the rollout, prompted by the looming deadline for the end of XP support. When plans for migration were first drawn up, the Ubuntu deployment was supposed to be completed by 2015. However, with Microsoft ending support for XP in April, the thousands of machines still running the antique OS will be shifted to GendBuntu by the middle of 2014.

Lower TCO

According to Dumond, the toughest part of the migration as a whole has been resisting the siren song of proprietary software: the challenge was "maintaining the main strategy during so many years (from 2004 to now) against sweet temptations to choose the easier (but with higher costs) way".

Higher costs indeed — the organisation estimates that the TCO of the desktops will fall by 40 percent between 2008 and 2014 when the deployment is complete.

Part of the TCO reduction comes in upfront costs: savings on licences and cost of licence access, and, when it comes to hardware purchasing, the force can buy desktops without an OS already installed, saving €100 or so per PC.

However, the savings aren't just from software licences costs: the change has also meant a reduction in local tech support needed, while Canonical charges the organisation €1 per machine per year to provide support.

Managing the fleet it easier too, Dumond says: for example, any upgrade from one LTS version to another is driven by the central IT team via the WAN with minimal disruption to officers on the ground, as happened earlier this year when the 37,000-strong fleet was moved from 10.04 to 12.04.

But, says Dumond, when looking at costs, it pays to remember that being free from the whims of commercial software vendors "is priceless".

For all its cost savings, the shift to open source has not been without resistance, both from staff and vendors. It's "a daily fight against internal and external resistance", according to Dumond. "Internal because some of our project managers are likely to forget that we are migrating to Ubuntu and external because we have to force companies (like SAP, for example) to provide full Ubuntu-compliant software if they want to win our calls for tender."

To help minimise disruption, the apps were kept consistent between the Windows and GendBuntu desktop. The gendarmerie also worked out an additional measure to sweeten the pill for the average user having to move from their familiar Microsoft environment to the brave new world of GendBuntu: throw in some new hardware.

"We added a bonus: each Ubuntu computer came with a new widescreen [monitor], so the change was more easily accepted with such an item," Dumond tells ZDNet.

There has been a drop in helpdesk calls from users, he added, but it's one which he attributes to the relative age of the machines: Ubuntu desktops tend to be years younger than their XP counterparts.

The migration risks

The project, along with the City of Munich's migration of 13,000 Windows PCs to a custom build of Linux, has been one of the trailblazers of wholesale moves to open source software. But when the gendarmerie began its own transition, there were few case studies for migrations on such a scale.

It was, says Dumond, "a huge risk".

"We bet that the change would not be so important, not for end users (we were quickly right!) but for technical teams (central or decentralised ones). We were right [there] too," he says, but notes that the 800 local IT staff were each given two weeks training to make the migration smoother.

While the proposed move of 35,000 desktops in under nine months may seem a tough one, Dumond says that in reality, it wasn't so daunting: with 5,000 LANs, it's a really only a case of moving a few PCs per LAN.

Each LAN has already had at least one machine on it transferred to Ubuntu, during the 'handcrafted phase' in order to introduce new services, including file sharing, and to show police officers that the change might not be as dramatic as they might fear.

While the gendarmerie may be quickly becoming known as an Ubuntu shop, it still plans to retain thousands of Windows machines after the migration is complete next year.

The organisation is made up of 90,000 or so users, and around 72,000 will have Ubuntu PCs and 13,000 Windows desktops (not every staff member needs their own machine — some police officers share them).

"We are not dogmatic, but pragmatic: you can't bypass a Microsoft OS in this globalised world where the market share of Windows is 90 percent. So, unless this changes, I will need such an OS on some computers. The challenge is to reduce them to the minimal number," Dumond says.

The gendarmerie is now looking at whether the same strategy could be deployed in the mobile sphere. It's considering a corporate device rollout in future, and is looking at both Android and Ubuntu Touch as potential candidates for a mobile OS.

If it goes with Ubuntu Touch, it may follow the same path as it has done with desktops: take hardware bearing another OS and install the Ubuntu equivalent over the top, given no handsets running the OS natively are known to be in the works.

"This is the next step: the mobility challenge," Dumond says. "We have not made a choice of a technology yet, but Android and Ubuntu Touch are the focus."

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Topics: Enterprise Software, Open Source, EU, Windows

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  • Interesting

    It will be interesting to revisit this in a year. Linux has always been "next year's" big thing, but has never succeeded as a PC OS. A few high profile success stories might begin to change that.
    • "never say never"

      What do you mean by "has never succeeded as a PC OS"? No, GNU/Linux is not promoted or backed with secretive NDAs nor those fishy, sometimes illegal, promotions, like what Microsoft does with Windows or Apple does with Mac OS X. No inaccurate propaganda campaigns like "get facts" and the like.
      It's better those the mentioned above in many ways though. Using it myself since 2004, never looking back ever since...
      • I don't think that's what he means by "never succeeded"

        Linux (not GNU/Linux) has not succeeded as a PC OS because the sites are always set too low.

        Ubuntu is an example of this - a modest, incrementalist approach. Even Unity is just a tweaked Gnome.

        Google has won big with Linux based OSes because rather than just tweak the mediocre (and by mediocre I don't just mean Gnome and KDE's profound mediocrity, but the whole PC industry's), they re-imagined the whole thing... with both Android and Chromebooks.
        • Linux and KDE have succeded for many years now.

          In your not so humble opinion. I have a Macbook Pro that I dual boot and the only time I go into OS X is to run Logic. KDE is more than a match for Mountain Goat . The idea that KDE is mediocre is nothing but an [incorrect] opinion. OS X does absolutely nothing that KDE can't do.

          Like eulampius I have been using Linux since the early 2000s and I find Windows and OS X stifling in comparison and Windows just pales next to it. OS X is OK, but takes far too much freedom away from the user. And as for the bizarre way the top tool bar works. Horrid.
  • I'm a big Linux fan, but

    it will achieve wider success on the desktop only in situations like this when a large organization commits to a full changeover, including applications. When people have to deal with proprietary formats (e.g., MS Office, Adobe Photoshop) it is very difficult to change over. Hopefully, the rise of software subscriptions for proprietary products will encourage a shift.
  • Rerun

    Anotrher XP doomsday report. I'll be glad when it's over and people stop bashing the great OS.
    • Microsoft has a liftime for systems scheduled.

      Microsoft is the first to throw XP under the bus. No more support.
    • A "Microsoft Doomsday Report" is more accurate..

      Based on Microsoft's continuing lack of interest in providing support or comfort to customers, the Windows 8 debacle for desktops will only be the next in the chain of corporate downhill slides. When your corporate agenda seems to be to "get out of the desktop business" and drive your products to a constantly changing "electronic toy" service, you deserve just what Moneysoft is getting..
    • Great?

      I had to fire up my XP virtual machine today to work on some legacy equipment.
      It hurts my eyes to look at it to be honest. Yes, it works but I would rather stab a pencil into my leg than have to use XP on a daily basis. Computing desktops have moved on...XP needs to retire.
  • 'It was a huge risk': How the end of XP support helped France's gendarmes e

    6 years is a fast track? Seems to me this was a rather slow deployment most likely caused by all the inconsistencies of using linux. The sad part is this organization thinks they are lowering TCO and saving money but when they had to hire developers to recompile the kernel and then develop and compile their own custom apps all that money went out the window. When those developers leave they are going to be stuck with no support for their apps. It would have been much wiser for them to get a deal with Microsoft and continue using Microsoft Windows software on their computers. There was no development or support costs for them. It was all on Microsoft's tab. Linux users never look at the big picture.
    • Nope. It was due to vendor resistance.

      They were being careful.

      And 6 years is fast... look at the competition- took them over 10 years to roll out something that mostly works (Windows 7).

      And no - there is a huge development cost with Windows - you DO have to pay for the software.

      Linux users do look at the big picture. It is just that you are blind.
      • "Linux users do look at the big picture. It is just that you are blind."

        sure thing, they look at the big picture and yet manage to notice only what they want to see and ignore the facts that don't fit their inner model of the surrounding world. otherwise they would have accepted the simple fact that any software works only "mostly". Human species, you know, have not yet figured out how to make software that guaranteed to work as intended. Let along the "intended" part that is often what really is broken in the software.
        • yet...

          >>"Human species, you know, have not yet figured out how to make software that guaranteed to work as intended."

          Yet, some funny human species (from Redmond,WA) don't give too much thought when they design it, so it usually turns out working opposite to what it had been intended at first.
        • Linus quite simply works better

          No viruses, no disk defrag, more drivers, easier install, free app store [aka repository], faster, more nibmble, total freedom AND TCO is lower than Windows, it's proven again and again, it's just that the trolls like Lovestruck Davidson loves to pretend otherwise.
    • Locky-Rocky

      You're awesome! I think, in all of your comments/jokes, there is a grain of truth.. AMOF, organization you seem to be trolling for resort to very similar ways. Since Gendarmerie Nationale started moving away from Microsoft and Windows, we've witnessed many propaganda campaigns done or sponsored by the Microsoft Corp. "Get the facts" is one that comes to mind, another was the (in)famous demonstration of how their software had lower TCO than GNU/Linux for the Russian schools. We've also seen many other ones. At the end, I guess the king is a better jester than the jester himself.

      Yes, and BTW, building the kernel is automatized and almost absolutely care-free. I do it (mostly for fun) for my many Debian systems. It cannot compare to the Windows hoodoo/quackery: rebooting, reinstalling cleaning registry, disinfecting from malware etc. GN can afford their own custom kernel compilation if they need so, I am sure.
    • Loverock, you likely ignored

      They are paying Canonical for support. A whooping 1 EUR/year per PC.

      You also forgot that they expect SAP and friends to handle all the developing, if they want the business.

      Oh, and by the way, you forgot to ask who will be closing the open telnet port.
    • why is this microsoft troll still writing here?

      ...oh i forgot this is microsoft fairy tale site
    • No no my friend

      Apparently you did not read the article carefully, you are also unaware of the local situation. Just of few shots.
      - A person working for the French Gendarmerie does not leave the company until he retires or is convicted for a crime.
      - They never compiled a kernel, they used the Ubuntu LTS with precompiled binaries.
      - They don't develop applications. Either they use of the shelf free SW like OpenOffice or they buy custom developed SW. They forced their software application suppliers to make a Linux version iso of Windows version. For custom developed SW, this related cost remains roughly identical.
      - Actually the IT staff reduced iso increased. They no longer needed the persons who bought and kept track of the Microsoft (and others) SW licenses. Window fanboys always forget this cost.
      - The support cost decreased, although this might have been because the XP machines were older, as they mention in the article.
    • go away you childish troll

      whose IQ is smaller than your shoe size.
  • Basically, if you didn't start 5 or 6 years ago,

    it's already too late to do a smooth transition from XP to ANYTHING ELSE. The best you can hope for is an overbudgeted, maybe not TOO late, kludge, to be gradually and painfully debugged over the following few years. I am referring, of course, to large organizations with one very large, or several large, proprietary applications tailored to run on XP.

    The same thing was true in the mainframe days of transitions from one OS or one system to another.