While hard numbers remain elusive, business adoption of Linux on the desktop appears to be growing, motivated at least in part by the need to stretch IT budgets during the current economic slump.
Linux currently has a tiny but rapidly growing toehold in the overall desktop market. The upside, according to Open Road blogger Matt Asay, is that Linux desktop systems grew 62% from 2007 to 2008. The downside: even that tremendous expansion only brought Linux desktops to 2.02% of the market.
Open source office suites gain ground
Desktop adoption seems likely to continue to grow, especially with the economic downturn and the entry of IBM into the market with its Linux-based Symphony counterpart to the Microsoft Office suite, giving businesses the application tools (in addition to OpenOffice) that they need to run on top of a Linux OS.
"IBM has some great case studies on call center deployments and straightforward desktop functions where companies have achieved large cost savings," said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. "This savings has created the momentum for expansion into mainstream productivity workers… adding up to serious cost savings without a loss of functionality."
Linux users increase deployments
Al Gillen, program vice president of system software for Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp., recently surveyed IT workers who had some familiarity with Linux, and reported in a white paper that 48% of them are expanding Linux desktop deployments due to the worsening economy.
"Customers already using Linux now are more likely to increase their consumption of Linux, but (business deployments) still are few and far between," and the increases might simply be pilot projects, Gillen cautioned in an interview. Small companies typically don't have the skills to experiment with Linux but midsized and large companies are more likely to expand their Linux footprint due to greater use of Web-centric applications, where the OS is irrelevant, he said.
Gillen cautioned, however, that companies are more likely to achieve savings with open source at the application layer rather than the OS and warned that maintaining and patching multiple OSes can be more expensive in the long run and is "not a viable strategy."
In another recent white paper sponsored by IBM, British-based Freeform Dynamics Ltd. also found that cost savings is the top motive for Linux migrations. These migrations are most likely to be successful if they begin with IT staff and transaction workers and progress later to knowledge workers who are more likely to resist a move from Windows, the research firm concluded.
"While we cannot infer overall mainstream penetration or trends from a study like this based on feedback from existing adopters, it is clear that some maturing is taking place in the whole desktop Linux arena," and some long-standing technical issues have been resolved, Freeform Dynamics wrote.
Case studies: Businesses lured to Linux desktops by cost savings
IBM spokeswoman Colleen Haikes said the Armonk, N.Y.-based company has seen strong interest in the Linux desktop since launching its Symphony office suite last December. For example, Gruppo Amadori has begun rolling out Linux desktops running IBM Symphony software on Red Hat Enterprise Linux to 1,000 of its 6,000 employees. The Italy-based wholesale poultry distributor said its motive for migrating from Microsoft products to Linux is lower acquisition and operational costs.
A second IBM customer, Glendale Adventist Medical Center in Glendale, Calif., has installed 65 thin-client monitors and keyboards in hospital rooms, allowing patients to check email and research their medical conditions from their bedsides. The monitors run NoMachine NX virtual desktops on Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise, with no risk to patient privacy because all the data is stored centrally on IBM system x3650 servers, Haikes said. Glendale Adventist plans to expand the virtual desktops to clinicians and employees in the future.
Among the most well publicized migration from Windows to Linux is the French national police force or Gendarmerie Nationale, which saved millions of dollars by moving from Windows to Ubuntu desktops and open source software applications. The French police plan to triple the 5,000-desktop pilot installation by the end of the year and roll out Ubuntu to all 90,000 workstations by 2015.
Schools also have been leaders in adopting Linux-based systems, not only on the desktop but throughout their management infrastructure, particularly in Brazil and Spain. In the U.S., Michigan City, Ind., is an open source pioneer. The district saved more than $350 in hardware and software per desktop by installing Ubuntu instead of Vista or Windows 7 throughout a new school last January and will open another all-Ubuntu school this summer, according to IT Director Kevin Maguire. The district's ultimate goal is to run all desktops and backend systems on open source, he said.
SearchEnterpriseLinux.com readers report Linux desktop success
Judging from SearchEnterpriseLinux readers, Linux (especially Ubuntu) is a simple and cost-effective desktop OS for small businesses as well. Sandy Dunlop, an IT consultant working for Memex Inc. has nudged the global law enforcement database company from a mix of proprietary platforms to Ubuntu for servers and most desktops and laptops, about 20 altogether in its British, California and Virginia offices.
"Ubuntu is perfect for us," Dunlop said. "It's so much easier to set up and configure. We've saved a lot of time, have fewer security issues and no problems integrating with the other systems in the network."
James Waldron, a business administrator for a Florida medical office, is in the process of migrating the staff from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice, the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird open source email. First Care Family Physicians can't afford the hardware or software costs to migrate from Windows XP to Vista or Windows 7 so Waldron is weighing a switch to Ubuntu. However, Waldron's initial attempt was forestalled by installation problems with the display drivers and he had hasn't had the time to try it again.
A Uruguayan company that helps poor students go to college also has converted its 30 employees from Microsoft desktop products to open source and runs its server on Ubuntu to minimize expenses. And another small business owner wrote that Ubuntu is "rock solid" and relatively easy to install. "Ubuntu is free stuff. Why complain?" wrote Dave Fernandes.
Finally, Craig Sparks, owner of Vision Blue IT services in South Africa, has migrated his office from Microsoft to Ubuntu and OpenOffice and has convinced other firms to switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice as well.
"My staff has no difficulties at all using OpenOffice," he said. "In fact, they prefer it."
Should Microsoft get worried about erosion of its market share? Not unless its chunk of the desktop falls to 75 or 80%, said Gillen. The long-predicted "year of the Linux desktop" is "never coming," he added. A successful Linux competitor "will be something in a different shape or form like the Moblin [netbook] or an end-run against the desktop. For Linux to capture market share from Microsoft would be a huge challenge."
Let us know what you think about the story; email Pam Derringer, News Contributor.