Using Linux opens new windows of opportunityby Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Business in Vancouver , Issue #737 December 9-15, 2003 High Tech Office column
Linux has gathered a lot of fans both for being a freely-distributed open-source operating system and for being more crash-proof and secure than the name-brand, more widely-used Microsoft Windows. Just imagine, an operating system without computer viruses.
Many businesses have computers running Linux, but most often it's powering systems running behind the scenes on Web, file or print servers (often replacing servers running more powerful, but also more expensive Unix software). While power users may install Linux on the computers they run at home, outside of a handful of technology-sector businesses (like Internet Service Providers), it's hard to find a business that's taken Linux out of server closet and using it in place of Windows on employees' desktops.
Customs brokerage George H. Young International (www.ghy.com) has about 100 employees in five Canadian and three U.S. offices, including one at Vancouver International Airport. As with many other companies, Linux sort of snuck up on the brokerage. It was first brought to the company's attention eight years ago by a young IT employee. According to Nigel Fortlage, GHY's vice-president for IT, the company started experimenting with Linux, using it for file and print sharing on its first local area network. But Linux use just sort of grew, with the company converting its dial-in services, e-mail, and instant messaging services to run on the open source system.
Next, according to Fortlage, GHY started building custom Linux business applications and moved to Linux-based Virtual Private Networking, a move that saved it $5,500 a month. On advice from IBM's consulting services, GHY consolidated what had been nine separate servers into two IBM iSeries servers, both running Linux. By linking them, GHY can increase automation and offer new services, such as the ability for customers to access records online. Meanwhile, time spent by Fortlage's staff managing the network has dropped dramatically. Backup chores, for instance, have been dramatically simplified with the new hardware and software.
Next up for GHY will be to replace Windows on most users' desktops. The company is currently testing both Red Hatand Suse Linux distributions. According to Fortlage, finding replacements for the major applications hasn't been as much of an issue as "finding alternatives to the various Windows utilities we use daily."
Fortlage hopes the changeover will free up IT employee time. An internal study showed that his department was spending about 50 per cent of its time supporting Windows users, not including training time. He hopes that this will drop to under 15 per cent. Moreover, switching will free the company from the need for ongoing Windows update and patching, issues he considers "troublesome at best, security breaches at worst." He also expects significant cost savings, pointing out that the initial costs of outfitting a system with Windows and Windows applications is about 10 times the costs of an equivalent Linux desktop.
GHY is hoping to convert 50 per cent of its 100 desktops over the next year to 18 months. Fortlage notes that he doesn't expect to be able to convert all of the company's systems, because a few users rely on Windows software that lacks good alternatives.
If you're curious to see what the fuss is about, but aren't ready to abandon Windows, Knoppix (www.knoppix.net) offers a ready-to-run Linux-CD free for download or purchase for $5 plus shipping. Booting from the Knoppix CD installs nothing on your computer but gives you a working Linux system, complete with office suite and other usable applications. It's a little slow starting up, but it's a good way to see what it's like to close the Windows without having to make a commitment. Very slick!