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How to switch an enterprise from IE to Firefox

Most of the information out there about switching from Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) to Mozilla Firefox (FF) focuses on individual users. But enterprises are dumping IE for Firefox also, and making the switch in the corporate setting brings a host of concerns that you don't see when you're talking about just one desktop.

In this article, we'll discuss the most important issues to watch for when you're making the leap from IE to FF in a managed desktop environment. Some of these issues may pose serious problems if you are heavily dependent on IE or if you want to use Windows-specific features, such as centralized management through Active Directory.

Deployment and customization

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The first and often the biggest question that administrators must answer is how to perform the actual rollout. From my observations, the largest barrier to corporate adoption of Firefox may be the lack of an official, Mozilla-sanctioned means of deploying and managing the application in an organization that uses Active Directory and Group Policy. But Mozilla is tracking this issue and has created a Bugzilla entry for it, so it's on their radar.

Even though Mozilla may not have a solution for how to do institutional deployments with Firefox, others have stepped in to fill the gap. The most promising is the Sandusky Computers Firefox Corporate Project. The package comes with administrative templates for various Firefox deployments, as well as customizations for Firefox itself (such as branding). Firefox user Shivanad Sharma has also provided a step-by-step guide to corporate deployment in the form of a blog.

Firefox ADM is an open source, Active Directory-centric deployment and management tool for Firefox. It doesn't perform rollouts, but it will allow an administrator to use Group Policy to manage Firefox settings centrally. Note that third-party deployment methods may use a different licensing scheme than Mozilla itself.

Application compatibility

Third-party applications can be another issue during a switch to Firefox. Some applications, such as ActiveX plug-ins, depend on IE to work properly. Because IE is technically part of Windows, these programs should continue to run in most cases but you may see exceptions.

If you have a program that invokes the system-default Web browser to display a particular piece of content, but the content requires IE to run correctly for some reason, you're going to encounter problems. Because of the complex ways in which programs can interact, the only way to find out what will work is to test it and see what happens.

ActiveX plug-ins in IE can be another problem, because Firefox doesn't natively support ActiveX plug-ins. If you need to run ActiveX plug-ins, you can use a transitional bridge through a third-party system; Adam Lock's Mozilla ActiveX project is probably the best-documented and supported effort. But if you're planning to move away from ActiveX entirely, this should be used only as an interim bridge.

If your company's applications are accessed through a Web interface, keep in mind that Firefox can occasionally render Web interfaces differently than IE. For the most part, fixing these problems doesn't require major effort unless the problem occurs across hundreds of pages. (IE is far more forgiving about broken, missing or malformed TABLE tags than Firefox, for instance, but even a page that's only being used for internal functions should still be able to pass basic HTML validation.)

Don't forget about add-ons and external programs; you'll have to find substitutes for these if they are IE-centric. For instance, when considering bookmarks, Firefox's flat-file storage for bookmarks vs. IE using individual files for each bookmark in a folder hierarchy might create problems if you use things like third-party bookmark-management tools that are IE-only.

Roaming profiles

Roaming profiles—the ability to have one's preferences and bookmarks follow a user wherever they sign on—is another feature that Firefox should support depending on how things are configured by the administrator. On Windows, Firefox stores its user-specific data in the user's profile folder—usually in \Documents and Settings\\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles—which should allow the program's settings to be synchronized along with the rest of the profile. I've also seen a few third-party solutions that work with a little tinkering (although I have not tested this solution myself).

Google provides another possible solution through a plug-in called Google Browser Sync, which keeps bookmarks, history, cookies and saved passwords consistent across multiple machines. The downside is that it requires a Google user account for each individual user; it doesn't synchronize through Active Directory. Glaxstar's OwnArea plug-in works the same way (although personal accounts are free).

Usage / retraining

In some cases, you may need to retrain the end users to use Firefox. Many people do not automatically adapt to using Firefox after working with IE. You might want to determine ahead of time if there are specific users that need retraining, and focus on them. If you have some computer-savvy users who have installed Firefox at home and are already at least passably familiar with it, for instance, you might not have to retrain them.

Conclusions

Although Firefox is a challenging contender for Internet browsing on the individual user's desktop, it still has some distance to cover before it will be a viable alternative in the corporation. The biggest obstacle is the lack of any official Mozilla tool to centrally manage deployment throughout an organization. The bigger the organization and the more individual customization is required, the more difficult the conversion is likely to be.


This was first published in September 2006

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