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Open source desktop basics: Risk-free ways to get started, part 1

If you're at all like me, you tend to be just a little careful with your corporate IT infrastructure. What I do not want to hear is, "Hey, let's rip out these mission-critical services, replace them with this open source thing we keep hearing about, and see what happens."

What I have wanted to hear about are ways to introduce open source software (OSS) into my corporate IT services without risking any problems at all. If you'd like to know what I've heard, then read on.

Humble beginnings

Let's say that we're only introducing OSS into your production environment at this time. In that case, I'll discuss how to make some simple OSS additions to your existing desktop environment. For instance, I'll cover adding 2.0 while keeping Microsoft Office, Mozilla Firefox while keeping Internet Explorer, test driving Linux without dumping Windows and using a Virtual Machine to run Linux and Windows on the same machine. Many IT managers may have done these tasks already. If you're in that boat, you can use this primer to introduce your users to open source applications and Linux.

In future articles, I'll share what I've learned about what's needed to migrate your existing services to OSS at the server level. For now, however, we'll take a more relaxed approach. After all, Rome wasn't burned in a day.

More from Frank van Wensveen:

Open source desktop basics: Risk-free ways to get started, part 2

Why and when open source products best Microsoft, part 1

Why and when open source products best Microsoft, part 2

The easiest way to start out with OSS is to add new software to your existing software base. By leaving existing software and services in place, you ensure that business won't be interrupted if the new software should develop any hiccups.

Most OSS products can be installed without disrupting anything else. This is a remarkable contrast with most Microsoft products; as these may overwrite significant portions of Windows during installation.

No-risk ways to use an OSS office suite and browser

You can do these tests alone or select a small group of your users to try out OSS, too. Start by downloading OpenOffice 2.0 from the site.

You and your users are probably already using Microsoft Office on a daily basis, so leave that just where it is. Use OpenOffice 2.0 as the default office suite. Ask them to put it through its paces. I bet they'll find that that life without Microsoft Office is not a pipe dream.

Should anyone run into any difficulties with OpenOffice, they'll always have Microsoft Office available as a backup. For example, if you use macros a lot, or if you work with third-party documents that contain macros, you may want to fall back on Microsoft Office now and then, as macro support is perhaps the only area in which OpenOffice 2.0 leaves something to be desired.

Now, let's also download an open source browser, Mozilla Firefox, from Mozilla's site and install it.

The Firefox Web browser is amazingly popular for a good reason. It's a first-class browser. Actually, there's a good chance that you already use it, even if you don't care about OSS at all.

Like OpenOffice 2.0, Firefox can be installed without any impact to existing software or services on the computer. At the very worst, you may change a file association here or there, but that's trivial.

When your users play with Firefox, tell them to go into the 'Tools' menu and select 'Extensions'. The 'Get more extensions' link will let them download and install additional features for Firefox. These will dramatically enhance the Web browser's functionality.

The main differences between OpenOffice and Firefox and Microsoft applications are cosmetic: mostly, a slightly different look-and-feel. Chances are that it won't be long before your users will have grown used to that. Maybe they'll have to look through the menus a few times in search for a certain feature, but that's about it.

When your users downloaded the new OSS software, they will have had to select which operating system they wanted to run on those applications on. Most people use and will select Windows. Keep this in mind: Should you want to use other operating systems in the future, all you need to do is to download and install a version of your application software for that OS, and continue as usual. That is the sort of freedom that OSS gives you.

You (and, perhaps, some of your users) have taken your first, risk-free step into the OSS world. Now, you can do the same with many other OSS products. There is an OSS counterpart for most everyday computer applications. Remember this for the future. When the time comes to roll out new software on existing or new workstations, it may be worth your while to investigate the OSS alternative before shelling out money for commercial products.

Now, let's move on to getting started with Linux and a Virtual Machine in part two.

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