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Linux on the Corporate Desktop: We Did It, and You Can Too

Linux
Location: D136 Level: Intermediate
Average rating: ***..
(3.89, 9 ratings)

We’ve done WHAT?

Yes, most of our office PCs are running Linux.

In a small town in Kansas, a 400-employee manufacturing company has
switched 2/3 of its desktop and laptop PCs to Linux. Why did we do
this, how has it worked, and how did we accomplish it?

Genesis

As the release of Vista and Office 2007 neared, we looked at several
unattractive scenarios: supporting Vista alongside XP on our network,
migrating everyone to Vista at some point, and trying to stay with XP
as long as possible.

Tired of being stuck in the maze of entagling requirements (software X
only works with XP, program Y only works with Vista, and Microsoft’s
upgrade agenda doesn’t necessarily match ours), we decided to look at
Linux. Linux performed much better than Vista on our then-standard
hardware, and would save us over $300,000 in direct costs alone
compared to migrating to Vista. We also saw some tremendous potential
for benefits down the road in IT management and worker flexibility and
productivity.

Benefits

  • Reliability
  • Lower downtime for hardware problems
  • “Hot desking”
  • Lower administrative burden
  • Same image everywhere
  • Hardware autodection

Making It Work

To make this sort of project work, you need to have a top-notch
solution in three areas:

  1. Technology
  2. Politics
  3. Social
  4. Community

Technology

We started with desktop PCs. We chose to base them on Debian, which
we already have experience with. We use systemimager, which gives us
a 4MB ISO we can pop in any PC, boot from, and have it come up to a
full installation in about 15 minutes. We wrote some scripts that
automatically check for and apply updates. We also made some small
tweaks to the system so that it autodetects video hardware on every
boot, so a single image can work on a wide variety of hardware.

We mount user home directories over the network with NFSv4 and use
LDAP for authentication. That means that all of each user’s data is
stored on a server, making backups a snap. It also means that any
given person can sit down at any Linux PC and have all their settings
and documents with them. If their PC dies, that’s no big problem. We
bring up another one we’ve got sitting on a shelf and diagnose theirs
later. Each PC has a bit-for-bit identical image, so this works
easily. We highly recommend this approach. It makes things so simple
to manage and work so well.

We use OpenOffice on the PCs, with the OpenOffice.Org builds instead
of the Debian builds because we needed some features faster. There
are of course minor formatting issues with opening some old Office
documents, and some training for how to save things that others can
read.

We initially used GroupWise and Evolution for our calendaring and
email solution. We found both GroupWise and the GroupWise plugin for
Evolution to be unstable under production use, and have switched to
Thunderbird and EGroupware.

We also have a Windows terminal server and use rdesktop to access the
remaining Windows applications that our users still need.

Politics

What’s important to your company, and how will a proposal like this be
judged?

At this company, from the CEO on down, IT is viewed as an investment,
not an overhead. That $300,000 savings over Vista wouldn’t have
mattered much if there weren’t other long-term benefits as well. We
also have a long track record of successes with Linux, and in fact our
phone system gained reliability when it switched from a proprietary
PBX to a Linux one running Asterisk. And we have staff that knows
Linux very well.

Different companies have different priorities and different ways of
making decisions. Make sure you know what matters to your company.
Does your company feel comfortable or nervous about Open Source? If
it’s nervous, look at support contracts. How important is having the
latest technology to your company? How important is security? Make
the strenghts of your solution fit the goals of management.

Social

How will the people that will be using this daily feel about it?

There are always people that don’t like change or are afraid of the
unknowns. We had some people that were saying that Linux can’t even
use a mouse and is all command-line. After we held a few demo
sessions, that went away quickly.

Recognize that this is a natural reaction and deal with it politely.

Firm commitment from senior management will help this work well, too.
Make sure the people at the top are on board.

Community

Linux isn’t just a cheap OS. Leverage Open Source.

When we wanted to find a better calendaring solution, we found
EGroupware. It did most of what we wanted, but had a few bugs in its
interface to clients. So we fixed them and sent in patches. We’ve
also released some of the software we wrote for this project under the
GPL.

Other Opportunities

Keep an eye out for ways to leverage the benefits of Open Source.
Here are some that we’ve found:

  • Instead of putting Windows on all our touch-screen terminals in our
    manufacturing areas, we developed a stripped-down Linux image.
    Saves us a ton of hassle with keeping all those machines
    up-to-date.
  • As part of our migration, we learned a lot about the business
    processes in use. This was a great opportunity to help other
    departments switch to electronic processes and develop simple
    custom tools to help them.

Questions?

John Goerzen

Hustler Turf Equipment

I have been working with Linux and other Open Source technologies since 1995. I enjoyed both the quality of the software, the cost, and the ability to work with the source code to learn and contribute.

In 1997, I joined the Debian GNU/Linux project as a developer. My ties to the community grew over the years; in 2004, I was elected President and Chairman of the Board of Software in the Public Interest, Inc., the nonprofit legal parent organization of Debian.

I also have written several books about Linux and programming. My most recent ones include the Linux Programming Bible and Foundations of Python Network Programming. I am currently working on Real-World Haskell for O’Reilly with two fabulous co-authors. This project is at www.realworldhaskell.org.

Since 2002, I’ve worked in IT for Hustler Turf Equipment, Inc. (Yes, we got the name before Larry Flynt). We make professional and residential lawn mowers, employ about 500 people, and have been growing rapidly for the last six years. We are a heavy Linux shop, running Linux on the majority of our desktops, servers, and even some handhelds. I led the deployment of Asterisk (Open Source PBX) for our phone system, Linux for our ERP system, and Linux plus OpenOffice and Firefox for our desktops. We’re at www.hustlerturf.com.

OSCON 2008