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Desktop Linux: Novell leads from the front

Novell chief information officer Debra Anderson has been charged with the task of migrating more than 5,000 employees onto desktop Linux and Open Office during the next 12 months

As CIO for Novell, Debra Anderson is in tricky situation. She may be head of internal technology at a technology provider but her software and hardware decisions have very real external ramifications for a company keen to be seen as 'eating its own dog food'.

Anderson's latest mission is to deliver on a commitment made by Novell senior management in March to migrate the majority of the company's 5,000 users from Windows and Office to open-source alternatives.

The company's chief executive Jack Messman recognises the importance of being seen to lead from the front when encouraging users to ditch the tried and semi-trusted world of Microsoft for the disruptive and unknown world of desktops running Linux and and OpenOffice, which is an open-source alternative to Microsoft's Office application.

ZDNet UK found some time in Anderson's hectic schedule to get some details on moving an entire enterprise worth of desktops onto a relatively untried platform.

Why is this migration being done? What is it about the Linux desktop that makes this migration so compelling and worthwhile?
Frankly I think we are moving to the Linux desktop for two reasons. One is corporate strategy but if I put my CIO hat on and say 'why would I do this', then for me it's about flexibility, choice, security. There is a lot that Linux has to offer that Microsoft says it's doing, but the more I read the more it seems what they're supposed to be coming up with is late.

So what is the timeframe for the migration from Office and Windows to Open Office running on the Linux desktop?
The aim is to have 90 percent of Novell on OpenOffice by the end of July. We are well on track for that. We think it's very important to give everyone a hands-on feel for open-source software and take it department by department, rather than rolling it out in a big disruptive way. As we go we are finding more and more material to help them migrate.

We took a rough guess of what the training costs would be for each person in the company and we are actually not finding it to be as big as we expected it to be, which is great.

So why just 90 percent of the company - what is the other 10 percent doing?
So, right now there are a few functional issues such as Excel Macros that are not supported in OpenOffice quite as well as we'd like but we know that there is work on the way to close that gap. I think as we go ahead with this we will find little pockets where it just doesn't make sense to migrate for the sake of it.

Ok - so what's the timeframe to migrate off of Windows onto the Linux desktop?
So, our next big milestone is to get 50 percent of the organisation over to the Linux desktop by the end of October 2004. We are again tracking really well with that and have got a large core of users internally who have already made that leap. We also created an early adopter program with our hardcore technology people at the end of last year - actually before the Suse acquisition so I guess I read the tea leaves right on that one. We started the early adopter programme last October to seek volunteers to actually work with us --- we've got about a 1,000 people on board at the moment -- and again it is going really well and I think we have identified a lot of the application issues.

So roughly how many desktops are there in Novell?
Well being a very technical company we have about two-point-something machines per person - which is not typical of a traditional enterprise but it's still going well.

One of the things I talk to CIOs about is critical success factors and right now one of those is not to treat it like a traditional IT project. For me the reason not to treat it like a traditional project is that on a usual project then the IT team would be off for six to nine months really testing everything. For this what we did was say 'Join with us', this is a disruptive technology without an established road-map so we need volunteers to help weather some of the initial stages.

How much is the migration a marketing decision and how much is it really about technology?
I have spent most of my career working for non-technical companies, so would I have done this migration if I didn't work for Novell? Well, yes but I would have probably done it differently. I would probably have done a bigger pilot project but only because we are still at the very early part of the development curve of the technology.

But who made the decision to go with this migration - Jack Messman?
Well that would be the perception but we started the early adopter programme last year without Jack and before we bought SuSE.

Is the long-term aim of this project to get to a point where there is no Microsoft software being used in Novell?
We are a cross-platform provider and as such we continue to use Microsoft software and the desktop is an important part of that. I think for our customers who are continuing to use Microsoft desktop and maybe using Zenworks as part of their solution, it's important that we continue to reassure them that we are supporting that.

How is it working out winding up the Microsoft licences you do have – are they making that an easy thing for you to do?
It's interesting you ask that -- we just concluded our licences in March. That was our annual contract with Microsoft and we terminated the Microsoft OS and Office enterprise licence.

That was across the entire organisation?
What that means is that for all the OSes I have, I do not have upgrade rights. Now I still have perpetual use for the set number of Microsoft Office clients I purchased.

So I've read that you expect to save about $900,000 (£497,594) from the Microsoft licensing issue but do you think there will be any costs associated with the migration -- around hardware for instance?

As we expand the desktop rollout across the company I expect to find areas of the company that may have equipment that is six years old or more, and I will have to address that, but I don't know if I wouldn't have been upgrading that equipment anyway.

Do you see Novell developing any commercial migration tools of the back of this internal project?
Yes, definitely, and that is happening on the services side too. If you go online right now and look at the offerings from our consulting group, we have a desktop and a server migration offering and they are developing these methodologies based on what we are doing internally.

So from a services perspective do you think you would have been able to go to customers and say 'we'll help you migrate from Windows' if you hadn't done this internally first? Did you really have any choice but to do this?
That's an interesting question. We certainly could have done but we would have partnered with whoever that first customer would have been. But as it is, my role is more than the traditional internal CIO role and it is to often be that first customer whom we think is very important in the whole development process.

So is it possibly to quantify exactly how many of the 5,000-plus users will be running Windows and Office this time next year?
It's very difficult to say as we are a cross-platform provider so we will never get 100 per cent of staff. My measurements are a bit cloudy from that standpoint. But if we are talking about enterprise desktops then hopefully six months on from this October – say mid 2005 then we should have the majority of desktops moved. It will never be that clear cut because you can have some machines that are portioned and running Linux and Windows. Success for me would be in say April 2005 if those people running portioned desktops [with Windows and Linux] were only actually using the Linux portion of their machine.