South Korea's government explores move from Windows to Linux desktop

In what may prove to be the biggest migration from Windows to the Linux desktop, the South Korean government is looking into shifting from Windows 7 to a trio of Linux desktops.

What's holding the Linux desktop back? Linus Torvalds looks to Chromebooks and Android for the future of the Linux desktop, while Linux Mint developers aren't happy with each other.

With Windows 7 in its support coffin, some institutions are finally giving up on Windows entirely. The biggest of these may be the South Korean government. In May 2019, South Korea's Interior Ministry announced plans to look into switching to the Linux desktop from Windows. It must have liked what it saw. According to the Korean news site Newsis, the South Korean Ministry of Strategy and Planning has announced the government is exploring moving most of its approximately 3.3 million Windows computers to Linux

The reason for this is simple. It's to reduce software licensing costs and the government's reliance on Windows. As Choi Jang-hyuk, the head of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, said, "We will resolve our dependency on a single company while reducing the budget by introducing an open-source operating system."

How much? South Korean officials said it would cost 780 billion won (about $655 million) to move government PCs from Windows 7 to Windows 10.  

In its first steps, the Ministry of National Defense and National Police Agency are already using the Ubuntu Linux 18.04 LTS-based Harmonica OS 3.0. While based on Ubuntu, this Linux desktop also borrows heavily from Linux Mint. It uses the Cinnamon 4.2 desktop environment and Mint apps. Harmonica 3.0 also includes Korean-created programs such as the Naver Whale browser.

Meanwhile, the Korean Postal Service division is moving to TMaxOS. This is a Linux-based operating system, but TMaxOS had had a controversial history of living up to its open-source licensing requirements. It's also closely tied to the Tmax cloud. This desktop has its own unique desktop interface and uses its own Chromium-based browser, ToGate.

The Debian Linux-based South Korean Gooroom Cloud OS is also being used by Defense and the Ministry of Public Administration and Security. Unlike the other two, this is primarily a cloud-based desktop with more in common with Chrome OS than traditional Linux desktops. 

Windows will still have a role to play for now on South Korean government computers. As the Aju Business Daily, a South Korean business news site, explained: Government officials currently use two physical, air-gapped PCs. One is external for internet use, and the other is internal for intranet tasks. Only the external one will use a Linux-based distro. 

Eventually, by 2026, most civil servants will use a single Windows-powered laptop. On that system, Windows will continue to be used for internal work, while Linux will be used as a virtual desktop via a Linux-powered cloud server. This looks to eventually end up as a Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) model. 

It's early days yet. This move may be meant to win significant discounts from Microsoft for Windows licenses. We may also see both Windows and Linux as running primarily in a DaaS mode by then. 

Still, a significant number of South Korean desktops will move to Linux in the near-term, while in the long-run many more of them may end up running Linux virtual desktops off Windows systems. Only time, politics, and governmental budgeting will tell. 

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