Business-like, isn't he?



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    Local law firm finds dropping Windows easier than expected

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver Business in Vancouver October 23-29, 2007; issue 939

    High Tech Office column

    Several recent High Tech Office columns recently looked at alternatives to Microsoft’s widely used Office applications suite. There’s also increasing interest in replacing Microsoft Windows operating system, particularly with the slower-than-expected adoption of the company’s Windows Vista.

    One alternative, Apple’s Macintosh, requires replacing all your computer hardware with models from a single supplier: Apple – something that makes many businesses uncomfortable. Instead, local law firm Whitelaw Twining looked at Linux, the open source operating system that runs on standard PC hardware, after Windows-based virus infestations cost the company “tens of thousands of dollars per hour.”

    Linux comes in a sometimes confusing range of “distributions” from a wide range of sources; many are free, others are not, but include technical support.

    After examining several, Whitelaw Twining went with Novell’s SuSe Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED). According to IT manager Richard Giroux, Novell’s name and long history helped sell his firm’s directors on the choice. The company was already using Novell’s border manager network security software.

    Like other distributions (and unlike Windows), a SLED installation includes a huge range of applications. Novell tweaks SLED for a business setting. And unlike many other Linux variants, SLED is multimedia-ready with a minimum of tweaking, something that was important to the firm’s attorneys.

    Whitelaw Twining rolled out SLED in two waves to accompany hardware upgrades. Now about 50 workstations are Linux-based. That represents nearly all of the firm’s desktop computers.

    Giroux was surprised at how little training Whitelaw’s staff – ranging from clerical staff to senior directors – needed. He prepared a single-page handout pointing out changes like the blue and red Firefox icon the blue “e” icon (for Windows’ Internet Explorer web browser) and demonstrated SLED features that have no Windows equivalents, such as the “Cube,” an attractive 3D effect to move among multiple desktops.

    The company hasn’t entirely cut the cord to Windows. Users have access (via Citrix terminal services) to Microsoft Office applications running on a server.

    Some users continue to use Windows-based voice dictation software; through SLED’s use of WINE technology they can run it without Windows.

    The firm’s laptops are still Windows-based, at least for now. Attorneys using them have asked when they’ll be getting the Cube.

    Giroux notes that Linux has evolved quickly over the past few years. He says that “if you’ve had a Linux experience even two years ago, it’s now a whole new ball game.”

    Giroux especially likes that once set up, these systems “run and run and run. For the most part, Linux just works.”
    And viruses and spyware, an ever-present problem on Windows-based systems, aren’t an issue for Linux users. Whitelaw Twining’s new PCs all came with Windows XP or Vista pre-installed. Installing SLED still leaves the option of booting to Windows. But according to Giroux, no one ever does.

    While Linux now runs a respectable proportion of network servers, its growth on users’ desktops has been much slower. Linux has a reputation of being too complex for the average user. Whitelaw Twining’s experience suggests it might be time to take another look.

    Many Linux distributions offer downloadable “live CDs” that let users try out Linux by booting to the CD without having to install anything on their hard drives. And Vancouver computer recycler Free Geek ( holds a regular Windowless Wednesday clinic every Wednesday evening, which they describe as “a night of skill-sharing, problem-solving, and education.” •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan

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