Crappy economy = great time for open source in schools

Not only is it budget time for me right now as we put together our FY10 plans, but it's also time to figure out how we're going to make it through the rest of FY09. Since so many people have lost jobs and/or homes recently, the state and town just aren't getting the tax revenues for which they've budgeted, meaning that we've been asked to find ways to cut as much as 10% from this year's budget.

Not only is it budget time for me right now as we put together our FY10 plans, but it's also time to figure out how we're going to make it through the rest of FY09. Since so many people have lost jobs and/or homes recently, the state and town just aren't getting the tax revenues for which they've budgeted, meaning that we've been asked to find ways to cut as much as 10% from this year's budget.

Obviously, there is some cost-cutting that needs to happen. While a lot of tech money has already been spent by this time (or is untouchable, as in the case of a lease payment), there are a few ways that IT departments can shave expenses for the rest of the year. Imposing printing quotas and actively working to reduce paper/toner consumption is a no-brainer. Those Vista upgrades you were considering? Don't bother. I'm certainly more likely to invest a bit more time in repairing PCs than replacing them, as well.

For FY10, though, when money hasn't already been spent, encumbered, or otherwise earmarked, eliminating software licensing costs makes more sense now than ever. Sure, Office 2007/2008 is really cool; even I like it and there aren't too many things out of Redmond that impress me. However, OpenOffice works really, really well and is completely free.

How about those Vista upgrades? If XP is headed out in your organization for whatever reason, now is the time to consider Linux. Before the flames begin in earnest, I completely understand that there are places where Linux still can't work and possibly even places where a Vista upgrade may be justified. However, if user requirements can be met with free software instead of software carrying a licensing cost, we'd be remiss if we didn't at least give it a second thought.

Need new hardware? No matter how much our budgets get slashed, we still need to replace hardware occasionally (hopefully more than occasionally, on a regular lifecycle-funded schedule, but, as you've probably noticed, the economy stinks). Again, bad economy or not, it may make the most sense to hit a major OEM and buy the hardware that can largely be had on the cheap now. However, if you can save money with some extra investment of time and go to TigerDirect or Newegg and assemble your own PCs, then all the more power to you. To actually maintain the pricing advantage in this scenario, it rarely makes sense to install Windows; Linux, in this case, simply saves you money, assuming that training needs or the learning curves for IT staff don't erase your savings.

I'm not saying that we should all switch to Linux because it automatically saves us money. In some cases, training and administration costs can even make it more costly. What I am saying is that now is the time to look at all of our options carefully; where we once might have dismissed FOSS out of hand, it's time for more serious consideration.

Software licensing costs can add up very quickly. There aren't a lot of good reasons to avoid free alternatives that are functionally equivalent, especially as public funding dries up over the next year.