At well over 300 talkbacks and counting, plenty of folks took my challenge (and my reader's challenge) to sort out just what it would take to switch from Windows to desktop Linux. Obviously, there was plenty of the standard Windows vs. Linux bickering, but there were also a lot of well-thought out responses. Given that our hypothetical office to be converted (the superintendent's office) largely runs vanilla productivity applications with our mission-critical (and proprietary Windows only) applications running via Terminal Services on a Windows 2003 server, it seemed as though the conversion would be pretty straight-forward.
Here are the highlights from the talkbacks, though, with some important considerations. None of these seem to be deal breakers, but they certainly need to be part of a well-planned and successful conversion if we decide to head down that road:
- Printing: Do all of the printers we access have Linux drivers? As much as we might want to be paperless, the super's office, perhaps more than any other district administrative unit, must produce printed documents.
- Backup: With our Windows machines, we can redirect desktops and user folders to a regularly backed-up server; Vista does a particularly nice (if slow) job of dealing with offline file synchronization. There are plenty of ways to handle this in Linux, but as far as I know, there isn't anything quite as slick as either group policies in Windows for the redirects or the similar functionality enabled in OS X server (feel free to post a link or instructions for making this happen easily in Linux).
- Replacing group policy and domain/enterprise levels of control in general: as noted above, while AD may have its share of issues, it makes pushing updates, enforcing policies, etc., really easy. Anyone have a good "Linux administration for dummies" link that covers good ways to handle policy for workstations across a network?
- Remote access: A relative was visiting for Thanksgiving and couldn't access his web-based VPN client on our Ubuntu laptop. Again, there are plenty of remote access solutions that will work quite well with Linux, but any existing infrastructure needs to be tested for compatibility.
- Complex Excel files: Compatibility between OpenOffice 3 and Microsoft Office is generally quite good. However, since the super's office also handles budget administration, there are most likely some fairly complicated spreadsheets floating around. A period of testing should certainly go on with OO.org, but a more important consideration may actually be the impact on productivity for budget admins who are extremely proficient in Excel.
- "Extracurricular crap": I really like this one, actually. Reader JoeMama_z makes a very good point: "Check out any extra curricular crap they may have, iTunes, Skype, etc. Yes these are silly but if users are pissed off you took away music they'll be more likely to resist and sabotage." Reader Ye offered this advice: "In my experience it's not the mainstream applications that prevent a switch but rather the myriad of smaller programs which have no OSS replacements. Be sure to identify and factor these programs into any migration strategy."
- ADA compliance: This hadn't even hit my radar screen, but it's a very good point made by ZDNet contributor, Marc Wagner. As he asks, "What about a superintendent (or staffer) with special needs? Are their sufficient ADA-compliant tools in the open-source community?" Any feedback on experience with ADA compliance and open source applications that can meet a variety of needs would be much appreciated.
So there you have it. Some new questions, some new considerations, and several good points. For us, I don't think that any of these are insurmountable, particularly because so much of what we do is either web-based or strictly productivity-oriented.
We're a small district who (since we now have a tech director instead of the occasional teacher or parent who jumps in and does some tech stuff) is finally starting to build infrastructure and think "enterprise", so enterprise tools like Exchange haven't even entered the picture yet. In some ways, now is the time to decide whether we fully embrace a Windows ecosystem or move to a much more open system with all the advantages and disadvantages that might carry.