Has enterprise given up on Linux?

The many incarnations and distributions of open-source operating systems such as Linux, Red Hat and Ubuntu have received widespread acclaim for years, but is the penguin catching on in corporate Australia? Or is it being left out in the cold?
Written by Luke Hopewell, Contributor on

ZDNet Feature

Is Linux still an option for enterprise?

The many incarnations and distributions of open-source operating systems such as Linux, Red Hat and Ubuntu have received widespread acclaim for years, but is the penguin catching on in corporate Australia? Or is it being left out in the cold?

It has become clear that the cost savings of moving to open source in the workplace are there for the taking, but the journey towards achieving those savings is not always a bed of roses. For example, some mission critical applications might require a Windows operating environment, or there may be resistance to change from employees.


So is Linux adoption on the rise?


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President of Linux Australia, Bulletproof Networks advisor and freelance IT network professional John Ferlito is a stalwart supporter of the open-source operating system and believes that almost anything Windows can do, open source can do too. It's unsurprising then that he thinks that open-source adoption in the corporate workplace is on the up and up.

"I think there's going to be an ever-increasing [open-source adoption]. I can't think of any major reasons why it would decrease. If you look at a lot of the work that has gone into Ubuntu, you can see the quality that's gone into [improving] the user experience," Ferlito says.

Ferlito believes that corporate Australia is still at the crossroads between sticking with Windows and taking the leap into open-source post-Windows XP, and doesn't think that businesses running Windows-only applications should use that as an excuse not to move into an open-source world.

"I've seen some organisations using a cut-down version of Linux and running a remote desktop client to a [virtual machine] to run those applications, so there's ways of getting around it," he adds.

However, Joseph Sweeney, advisor at Intelligent Business Research Services, paints a less rosy picture of the Linux landscape in corporate Australia. He believes that the crossroads-style debate between Windows and open source is dead and buried.

"I have been doing a lot of work recently in Windows migration planning and alternative planning around that. What is interesting is that there is very little discussion anymore in the enterprise about 'do we go Linux desktop?'" Sweeney says.

Instead, according to Sweeney, the conversation is centred around making the Windows environment "thinner" and easier to deploy.

"It's less about the OS [operating system] discussion any more, the majority of people are going down the Windows route [by default], but the discussion now is how that's deployed. Do they do terminal services, application virtualisation, Windows VDI, Citrix? It's about how they get the desktop out there."


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Sweeney feels that more and more organisations are saving money on their licence fees by deploying open-source software rather than open-source operating systems; however, several key teething problems often see the benefits of the software unravel for corporate users.

"I've had a number of our clients who have seriously looked at OpenOffice and Google [Apps]. The results of most of those OpenOffice pilots I've seen suffer from small but important issues of file compatibility. The way that documents are rendered in Office 2007 now is different. But on top of that, the Office 2007 and Office 2010 interface is increasingly being seen as superior to the old, clunky Office 2003 [style] interface that OpenOffice is based on.

"In short, the majority of people that I have spoken to who have looked at deploying OpenOffice in a mixed environment with Microsoft kit as well have not expanded that pilot. It hasn't been very successful in Australia," Sweeney says.


Success stories in practice

There are professionals who have migrated to Linux who would not agree with Sweeney's assessment.

Anglican Church Sydney CIO George Lymbers has for the past three years been overseeing an open-source software and desktop OS implementation across Anglican Church dioceses around Australia.

In 2008, Lymbers spoke to ZDNet Australia about the Anglican open-source project and said he'd discovered the Grail of cost savings when he decided to make the switch to Red Hat. Just over two years on, Lymbers has become quite the open-source desktop evangelist.

"Microsoft better watch out with this. A lot of the youth are starting to take over the technology side [of business] and they're not enamoured with Microsoft at all. It's not the big bad head office blokes pushing this any more. That's way gone. Younger people are demanding this sort of operating system. A lot of young people don't understand why they're having to pay for this software. It's a generational shift [towards open source]," he says.

Lymbers believes that open-source operating systems and applications are something that Australian businesses should be paying much more attention to. He also thinks, however, that cheap and cheerful open-source deployment has a financial sting in the tail.

"Look at Google Apps, for example, it's fantastic, but when you start demanding support and things like disaster recovery, more up-time, the ability to use apps from place to place, you have to start paying for it, and that can get quite expensive. All of a sudden, the cost of Microsoft licences don't seem all that bad," Lymbers says.

The answer, according to the Anglican CIO, is to develop your own private, open-source cloud.

"You're better off creating your own cloud using Linux, using the minimum support that's available [for] private cloud ... that changes the dynamic and becomes a lot more cost effective. For every hundred licenses you have at the moment, you may only need 20 licences of everything if it's all virtualised, maybe even less moving forward," he says.

"We're going through a period of change ... open source is going from strength to strength and I don't think it'll go away. You can't ignore the benefits of open source, but there's a trade-off with support and [native] applications. But if you're smart enough, there's a hell of a lot of things you can do [to get around those problems]," Lymbers added.

De Bortoli Wines is another company who has had incredible success with Linux, rolling out thin-client Linux.

CIO of De Bortoli Wines, Bill Robertson, started with the company 15 years ago, and in 2004 started to roll-out a Linux solution to its staff. The key to the success of the De Bortoli roll-out, according to Robertson, is the pace at which it is deployed. Slow and steady wins the race, according to the CIO.

Without a strong commitment to a project for an extended period of time, a failure is almost certain, according to Robertson.

"I think people switch back [from Linux to Windows] for a couple of reasons. Some of it is that [a roll-out] needs effective buy-in and [then] management changes. Let's say the tenure of an IT manager is roughly three years, realistically, and that makes it really hard to adopt long-term change in a business environment. We're lucky being a family-owned business in that we have a bit more time and security to do things," Robertson telss ZDNet Australia.


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In the case of De Bortoli, the company looked at its support and development cost, and spent time creating a strategy that would slowly introduce Linux desktops to the mix of Windows machines in the workplace.

"It didn't happen accidentally and it didn't happen overnight ... initially we rolled out around 30 [Linux desktops] or so. It was a gentle roll-out and an organic expansion. As machines need replacing we look at the best fit for purpose and it's replaced with a Linux desktop or Windows desktop accordingly, user by user or department by department," he says.

When asked what he likes about the Linux environment he's created, Robertson talked up the freedom that comes with Linux as opposed to other, closed-off operating systems.

"You don't buy a car with a bonnet welded shut that can only be serviced at one service station. People just wouldn't accept that, and they wouldn't accept it in the software world either," he says.


The downside

Not all corporate Linux roll-outs have been as positive as those experienced by De Bortoli and the Anglican church.

National hardware rental business, Kennards Hire, made a sheepish move back to a Windows-only environment after its failed Linux "experiment" last year.

The equipment hire business had intended to roll-out 400 Fedora-based desktop machines across its whole business, according to AustralianIT; however, it limited the deployment to 300 machines across the frontline counter staff only.

Kennards cited driver issues as the main cause of its grief, and various other issues stemming from not partnering with a commercial Linux vendor for the roll-out.

The company is now moving its desktop fleet back to a thin-client version of Windows XP.

ZDNet Australia attempted to get in touch with Kennards' IT manager, Richard Fox-Smith, to discuss its desktop IT decisions, but he had not provided comment at the time of writing.

The Verdict


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There's an old saying among IT managers, chief information officers and network administrators: nobody ever got sacked for spending money on Microsoft.

Implementing a multiple licence program for a Windows 7 desktop roll-out might be pricey, but setting network permissions, group policies and software installations are relatively cinch compared to an open-source operating system, where the only form of support comes from a community of open-source ninjas, and not an official tech support representative. This takes the shine off the zero upfront price tag.

Ferlito says that a business must first assess its suitability to an open-source roll-out, before jumping in with both feet.

He recounted a tale of a dentist he worked with who had wanted to move to Linux. Yet, the dentist's planning and patient management software couldn't sit in the cloud, or on a virtualised environment, rendering the move more trouble than it would have been worth in the end.

Even after companies have planned their move extensively, they still need to tread carefully, according to Robertson.

He says that most staff don't like change, they just want to use their computer for productivity purposes. He believes that the key to a roll-out is to start small and not force an expansion onto the workforce.

So Linux may still be able to take on Microsoft and the world. It just needs to take smaller steps.

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