German city reveals Linux migration tactics

The city of Schwäbisch Hall used toy penguins and the male ego to persuade workers to accept the switch to desktop Linux

A local council in Germany may have found the secret to overcoming user reluctance to Linux -- stuffed penguins and powerful women.

The small southern Germany city of Schwäbisch Hall ditched Microsoft's software in favour of open source back in late 2002. On Wednesday, Horst Bräuner, the civil servant responsible for implementing the migration, revealed the tactics used to get the council workers of Schwäbisch Hall onside.

Speaking at the Open Source for Local Government conference in London, Bräuner explained that some users were afraid that the deployment of Linux was part of a secret plan to read everyone's email, record all their keystrokes and monitor their surfing habits.

"I became the most hated person in the municipality, but hey, that's usual," joked Bräuner. "So, to people who didn't like it I gave away Linux t-shirts and stuffed penguins."

Other users were upset that they could no longer run the front cover CD-ROMs from their favourite computer magazines at work, or keep their old screensavers. These feelings were assuaged, Bräuner says, once it became clear that games did run on Linux and that people could still use their work PC for private use.

Once the migration was completed, though, there were concerns that the open-source software would be harder to use than Windows. Again, Schwäbisch Hall had a solution.

"We put the chairwoman of our workers' council on stage in front of all the municipal workers, and showed her using the new system. After that, we found that no man would say that he couldn't use his PC now that everyone knew a woman could do it," revealed Bräuner.

Schwäbisch Hall was the first German city to abandon Windows in favour of open source. It was soon followed by Munich, and yesterday the German Federal Finance Office signed up with Linux -- a deal thought to be one the largest Linux-based mainframe deployments in Europe.

The Schwäbisch Hall IT infrastructure is spread across 11 sites in the city. The city migrated all its more than 400 workstations, of which 325 are networked across a high-speed fibre-optic network owned by the city council.

There were several motives behind Schwäbisch Hall's pioneering move to Linux. One factor was cost, after the IT budget was dramatically cut between 2001 and 2002. Another was a push for better security, while a third was to escape from the treadmill of vendor-driven upgrades.

Tuesday's conference was attended by a swath of local council IT staff. Some appeared to be keen on Linux, while others were more sceptical about the idea of open source.

Tim Dawes, director of Ninevah Consulting -- which organised the conference -- urged delegates to explore the possibilities presented by Linux. He said that with big IT firms such as IBM backing Linux, the operating system shouldn't be seen as a tool only for geeks, and that the technical challenge posed in migrating to and supporting Linux shouldn't be beyond an IT professional.

Dawes also pointed out that users might be cross that their work computer ran Linux if their home PC was still on Windows, but insisted that this was a boon to network security.

"Your next network infection could be coming from their home PC," Dawes said.

Bräuner agrees that Linux's security is a massive benefit to system administrators.

"Private screensavers and computer magazine CDs might not work in Linux, but on the other hand the MyDoom virus doesn't either," Bräuner told the conference.

Late on Tuesday, Microsoft issued a patch for a vulnerability in its Windows software that could be used to unleash a virus even more devastating than MyDoom. This patch should be installed by anyone running Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP or Windows Server 2003.