Open source strategies: First steps to Linux desktops, calculating ROI and using more Linux

Open source strategy consultant Maria Winslow offers some basic advice on getting started with Linux desktop and determining ROI and strategizing for open source deployments in this tip. Here, she poses and answers questions frequently asked by IT managers when she works with them as open source practice leader with Virtuas Solutions, a consultancy in Denver, Colo.

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Ask the Expert team. Winslow's recent book, The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source, guides IT directors and system administrators through the process of finding practical uses for open source that will integrate seamlessly into existing infrastructures. – Jan Stafford, editor

What's the best way to evaluate the ROI of a potential open source migration?

Winslow: Return on investment (ROI), also called the cost-benefit ratio, is calculated by dividing the benefit gained by the costs to acquire the investment. You can think of ROI as 'for every dollar spent, I get back X percent.'

To calculate the ROI of a particular migration, you need a few cost numbers. Whenever possible, use historical budgetary data for the best accuracy. Not everyone pays the same for software, so if you use the actual value your organization pays, your calculation will be more credible.

You need to find out two figures: the cost of the status quo replacement system and the cost of deployment of your open source alternative. Calculate the cost of the status quo system as everything your organization will pay if you don't go with open source.

The cost of the open source deployment should not be $0. It's neither believable nor true. Be sure to include support contracts from a third party and outsourcing costs for deployment or staff training, even if you pay nothing for the actual software.

If a commitment to Linux is already underway, what are a few of the next areas where open source can benefit the enterprise?

Winslow: Chances are, if you're in this position, you probably have Linux already running some basic services like firewalls, DNS or Web servers. The next area to branch out in may be file and print with Samba and CUPS, creating redundant systems with Heartbeat or network monitoring with OpenNMS.

Open source content management systems are quite mature, with Joomla! and Bricolageleading the way.

On the desktop, you might start with OpenOffice for all new hires in place of Microsoft Office as a way to begin phasing in the use of open source software.

What are other steps towards open source on the desktop?

Winslow: A good way to get started with open source on the desktop is with open source software that runs on Windows. If you migrate users to the Windows versions of Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice.org, you'll be getting them used to the same software they may be seeing later on Linux. In effect, you'll be staggering the migration.

You don't need to start with Linux on the desktop to achieve big savings with open source, either; Microsoft Office is typically twice as expensive as the operating system.

If a company uses open source software and makes changes to it, is that company required to release the code?

Winslow: This will depend on which open source license the software has been released under. If it's the GPL, which is common, then you are required to make your modified source code available only if you distribute the code. If anyone outside of your organization runs the software, then that is considered distribution. If the software will remain internal, then you are not required to release the code.

Even if you are not required by the license to release the source code for your modifications, it is very likely in your best interest to do so. By giving your improvements to the community, you reduce the burden on your organization to maintain a separate version.

This was first published in September 2005

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