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Eight great tips for converting to open source

If your company is blazing a trail to open source, you don't have to rely on constellations to guide you. Just follow the advice of this open source educator.

Travelers on the road from proprietary to open source software won't be driving on an Interstate. Enterprise open source deployments are still uncommon enough that companies may have to plot a course along a "road less traveled." Dr. John Horn provided helpful "road signs" when he spoke recently at a Linux seminar sponsored by Source Code Corp. in Norwood, Mass. Horn is CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based Interstate Software, which provides education to companies converting to MySQL and other open source applications, and is the only MySQL training center in North America. Horn is co-author of MySQL: Essential Skills from McGraw Hill.

1. Inventory your IT
Horn compared the open source conversion to a Y2K conversion, where it is critical to inventory both the hardware and software being used. He said companies must ask themselves what functions are performed by existing hardware and software. Also, he said to ask, "Does my hardware support open source software?"

2. Find your "points of pain"
Companies must understand, up front, the reason why they want to move to open source, whether it is for cost savings or something else, such as freedom from vendor lock-in. Here, Horn recommended that companies should still try to stick with the major Linux vendors that provide support rather than trying to build their distribution from scratch. "If you step outside the norm and tweak the kernel," Horn said, "then you don't have support."

3. Ask how to remedy this with the least amount of disruption
Horn pointed out that a migration to open source software can be disruptive to a company, not only in terms of their technical business operations, but also because there can be political issues at play. He demonstrated that he was giving his presentation on OpenOffice slides, which appeared very similar to a PowerPoint presentation, and said, "I think it's as good as PowerPoint." However, there can be employees within a corporation who are attached to PowerPoint and will cause trouble. It is important to anticipate these issues and be prepared to make a case for open source. Horn also described one company's experience of simply upgrading to one version of Windows to another during which "they couldn't even print." Therefore, in any type of IT conversion, companies must be prepared and keep disruption to a minimum.

4. Linux isn't Linux if it's an appliance
One way to deal with political resistance to open source, Horn said, is to present Linux as a simple appliance. "You put it on a box," he said, and hand it to management and tell them that this is their new server.

5. Start with proven solutions that are supported commercially
He recalled how, in a previous job, he had worn a tie and gone face-to-face with his customers -- and said that if they didn't like what he was doing, they might angrily grab him by his tie. You don't have anybody to grab by the tie if you're using software supported by the community."

6. Severs are an easy target for conversion; desktops take more consideration
Again, Horn cautioned that there can be political resistance to conversion, especially when it comes to the software you stick in front of your employees. Making a smooth transition to open source desktops requires more education across an organization, to show people that they will still retain the same functionality they were used to having with their Windows desktops.

7. Data is easy to convert
"It's easy to take your Microsoft Access data and move it to MySQL," Horn said. He said that tools such as SQLyog can be used to convert data. "To rebuild the forms quickly you should use something such as CodeCharge from Yes Software," which can "create forms or make your application Web based," Horn said. "They both are good programs that are proven in the field."

8. Consider the costs of training, software and services
Horn stressed the importance of proper training for companies using open source software. He said "the 'cost' of training is relative to both the cost of the software and the productivity of the worker," and added that companies can use the money saved on the price of software can be reallocated for training, creating a more productive worker. Without proper training, companies may not get the full benefit of the products they've chosen, because the employees may not implement them in the best possible way.

"Workers may or may not have been trained previously, because there was no money in the budget after the cost of the software," Horn added. "Services in most cases cost less. In fact, many times common problems are solved by the open source community and shared for free on the Internet. From small fixes to complete solutions, open source is not just about 'free of price' software -- it's about sharing ideas and improving things as a community."

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