Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How to Transition a Windows Shop to Linux

As those who know my computer preferences well are aware, I'm a big advocate of the Linux operating system along with a host of free and open-source software solutions(F/OSS). By using these tools, I think I've been able to build a small business with minimal cost and I have a much better network and resources available to me. Plus, it is rock solid. While I've watched others dealing with a variety of problems related to their Windows servers crashing, my Linux box chugs happily along (I even did an upgrade on it with minimal fuss).

With my new job, I'm now faced with a major challenge. They are a Windows shop with a mix of servers running locally and some hosted, including their major ERP package. Although I've only been working there for about a month, it looks like the overwhelming majority of people confine their work to using e-mail(via a web interface), a web browser, and office productivity suites (e.g. MS Word or Excel, some Powerpoint sprinkled in). There are a few people using tools like MS Project and Visio (and they have a license for Project Server, but I can't tell that they are actually using it). I'm guessing the corporate communications employee is using some graphic packages and some desktop publishing, but I'm not sure what yet. And our fraud investigator, who also manages security, has some apps for creating employee id badges and access cards for doors. Beyond those, I'm not sure there is anything else in use (granted, I haven't even attempted a census of applications yet).

Based on that, it looks like the overwhelming majority of the employees have no need for the Microsoft stack that everyone is effectively issued (Windows + MS Office). No doubt there will be resistance, but getting the majority to accept a switch should be "do-able". Especially when you see the organization is paying in excess of $35,000 per year for all their Microsoft licenses (roughly 110 users plus the supporting servers). I haven't done the analysis yet, but instinct tells me a good Linux desktop with, Firefox and maybe even Thunderbird(for those that want an actual e-mail client like me), would be a lot less expensive.

Replacing some of the more specialized apps with something that would work on Linux will be more challenging. I have yet to find anything in the Linux landscape that can compete with some of the project management applications available for Windows, though Planner 0.14.1 is looking promising in some of the testing I've recently been doing. The same is true for Visio (which I actually think is sub-par compared to something like SmartDraw which I use in my business). Even if these apps can't be replaced, it should be possible to move to a more mixed environment.

One of the big stumbling blocks for me though was what to do about that ERP application. It is Windows based and is accessed via a Remote Desktop Connection. I have had limited experience working with hosted Windows apps. With my own business network, I was always connecting Linux to Linux, which is very easy. But connecting to a Windows box from my desktop was a challenge as it always seemed I needed some .NET or aspx stuff to make the connection.

On top of that, I'm considering the idea of trying to get a Linux server deployed in the organization for some skunkworks projects (like setting up a wiki, maybe some other stuff) to help promote collaboration (there is way...way too much use of e-mail for sharing documents right now). That was another challenge though since I would only have a Windows desktop available to me (at least for the time being) and I would need a way to connect to the Linux server to set stuff up and maintain it (and yes, I'm aware I could use putty to ssh in to the command line - my kung fu is just too weak to do everything via command line though).

The combination of the above led me to want to get an answer to two problems - how to connect from a Linux desktop to a Windows server and how to connect from a Windows desktop to a Linux server.

Little did I realize it, but the Linux to Windows connection was fairly easy. In fact, I already had the software installed here on my desktop - rdesktop! So I did some testing using a Windows machine here on my network and lo and behold, making the connection was no problem. A nice side benefit of this will be the fact that I can now work in QuickBooks from my desktop! That seems to resolve the first issue. Still some other items to test like whether I would be able to print locally (which even with the Windows desktop requires some configuration work). And if Linux desktops were deployed, I'm not sure we have drivers for some of the bigger multi-function units like our Danka copier. Assuming those issues can be resolved, this testing has at least eliminated the issue of being able to connect to the ERP server from a Linux desktop from the equation.

The second question led me to an application called WinaXe. There are probably some others out there as well (I once tested NX Client but found it lacking). I tried installing the evaluation on my laptop and after some configuration, I was able to connect to my Linux server's desktop. Woohoo! The only problem is the WinaXe package has to be bought - $99 for a single user (seems kind of steep for what it does). Part of their advertising indicates their package is a simpler way to connect than say Citrix (which I've never been impressed with).

So at this point I've figured out how I should be able to get around at least the first big stumbling block - making a remote desktop connection from Linux to a Windows host. Obviously there is still a lot of work to be done to address other applications and the financial analysis has to be done. And the clock is ticking as Microsoft plans to stop making XP available in the summer of 2008 (it is a Dell shop I'm working at now). Lots of challenges, but I think it may be possible to transition them away from Microsoft, resulting in a much better network at lower cost.

At the very least though, I've now figured out how I can support some of my family members remotely and I can start using my desktop for even more of the work I do in my business!

1 comment:

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