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Gagne: Making a painless exit from Windows, Outlook

Jan Stafford

In his book, Ready...Set...Linux!, Marcel Gagne zipped users through the move from Windows to Linux desktops. He knows that businesses tend to move more slowly and tread more carefully than users.

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So, in this interview and in his new book, Moving to the Linux Business Desktop, Gagne describes ways to ease out of the bonds that bind a business to Microsoft. As icing on the cake, he offers some tips on using Linux shells.

The benefits of moving entirely to a new, safer, more secure client that is less prone to virus infections far outweigh any good that might come from staying with the familiar Outlook client.
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In a nutshell, why do you recommend that businesses make the leap from Microsoft Windows desktops to Linux desktops?

Marcel Gagne:Linux provides many great benefits right up front. The costs of running Linux are lower overall and certainly lower in the long run. Security is far superior to that found in the Windows alternatives; keep in mind that viruses and spyware are costing companies billions in lost productivity and support costs.

Linux systems are more stable and generally faster than the Windows equivalent. Linux also means you can free yourself from vendor tie-in and licensing issues. If you are unhappy with your current OS (operating system) vendor and you are running Linux, there are others you can go to. If, on the other hand, you aren't happy with Windows, there is no other company producing Windows.

Even with these good reasons to move, businesses seem to be feeling shy about making a wholesale move to Linux desktops. What's your advice to them?

Gagne: Start by stepping into the shallow end of the pool. They can do that by adopting some open source alternatives to their desktop. Choosing Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird over Internet Explorer and Outlook will dramatically limit their exposure to security issues like spyware and certain types of viruses. The free OpenOffice suite meanwhile, provides an excellent (and in many ways, superior) replacement for Microsoft Office for the price of a download. Even a small company can save thousands of dollars.

Once users are familiar with some of these applications, making the switch to Linux desktops won't be such a culture shock.

IT pros say that their users are always worried about not being able to share files between MS Word and OpenOffice.org, or that they'll lose their MS Word files altogether if the organization moves to OpenOffice.org. Why are these fears unfounded or justified?

Gagne:There's really nothing to fear here. Many organizations routinely use OpenOffice to communicate with people using Microsoft Office products. OpenOffice reads and writes Microsoft Office formats (like Word, Excel, or Powerpoint) almost flawlessly. The differences aren't enough to justify the worries and using the free OpenOffice (which is available for Windows, as well) instead of paying for Microsoft Office can save even a small business thousands of dollars.

In your book, you said that you would choose to use Mandrake or SuSE Linux distributions for Linux business desktops. Why?

Gagne: Both SuSE and Mandrake offer very mature, very user friendly desktop environments and both provide the security and stability you expect from Linux. Both also have a vibrant user community and a dedicated corporate force behind them. Out of the box, SuSE is probably a bit more business-friendly than Mandrake, where Mandrake is more oriented to the home user.

Before we move on, I should point out that there are many mature, friendly Linux distributions out there -- Red Hat, Libranet, Xandros, Fedora, and others -- that can do the job equally well and can be customized to be what you want it to be for your particular business desktop needs. As I said, you aren't tied to a vendor if you don't want to be.

Speaking of being tied to a vendor, some organizations have chosen to move away from MS Exchange on the server and keep MS Outlook on clients. What's good and bad about this approach?

Gagne: The benefits of moving entirely to a new, safer, more secure client that is less prone to virus infections far outweigh any good that might come from staying with the familiar Outlook client. The only time I can see a plus there is if there is absolutely no other way -- eg: certain critical applications are so tied to the Outlook client that migration is currently impossible. In those cases, I would recommend that options for future migrations be explored as soon as reasonably possible.

One reason IT managers give for keeping Outlook is that users are used to and comfortable with it. Is the user learning curve very steep for those who move to Kmail or Evolution on the client side?

Gagne: If it's a familiar environment that is key, Outlook users are going to find themselves right at home with Ximian Evolution's multifunction email and contact management functions. The interface looks and feels very much the same.

KDE users now have Kontact which features similar integration. Every change in software will require some relearning whether it be Windows to Linux to Windows 98 to Windows XP. An upgrade brings unfamiliar items to the table. Quite frankly, I don't think we give users enough credit. People are quite capable of adapting to and learning new things.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing all Linux systems administration from existing tools, rather than using the shell?

Gagne: Let's start from the end on this one. For someone who is familiar with it, the shell is fast, powerful, and always available regardless of what system you are working on. It's also extremely easy on network resources, so if you have to administer a system remotely over a slow connection, you won't get bogged down waiting for things to happen if you are running a shell session. Finally, for those who take the time to become familiar with the shell, it's often much faster to type in a quick command and have it execute than it is to wade through several levels of graphical interface. Graphical may be friendlier but it isn't always faster.

Now that I've said that, I'll go back to the beginning and say that these days, I pretty much always recommend that people take advantage of the graphical admin tools provided by your particular distribution. One reason is software installation (as mentioned above). The second is simplicity and user-friendliness. If you or your admins are coming from a graphical environment, they will find these tools much easier to get used to. In the case of many different different distributions with different tools, you can use the distribution-agnostic Webmin which lets you administer your systems via a web browser.

Click here for Marcel Marcel Gagne's comparisons of OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office and more.

Click here for Marcel Gagne's tips on installing Linux on business desktops.


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