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Windows-to-Linux desktop migration tips: Why to switch, how to plan

Versora CTO Jon Walker provides the why and how of migration from Windows to Linux. Why, in a nutshell: Better technology.

Businesses should switch from Windows to Linux desktops because Linux's technology is superior, according to Jon...

Walker, CTO of Versora.

There are plenty of other reasons to make the switch, said Walker. Linux is a more secure operating system, extends the life of personal computers, erases vendor lock-in and carries lower license and support fees.

In this tip, based on Walker's migration workshops, we present his reasons why businesses should move to Linux desktops and good practices for planning that migration.

Increasing software's complexity usually increases the possibilities for security problems.
Jon WalkerCTOVersora

It's great that Linux is an open source platform, but that's not the main reason why businesses should switch their desktops to it, Walker said. He quoted Paul Graham -- programmer, author and inventor of the first Web application -- who said: "Users don't switch from Explorer to Firefox because they want to hack the source. They switch because it's a better browser."

Walker thinks that Linux's stronger security tips the scales in its favor as an enterprise desktop operating system (OS).

Linux developers have taken almost the opposite approach to security to what Microsoft has, said Walker. Linux code is open to everyone, so vulnerabilities are spotted quickly and breaches are attacked and fixed rapidly by thousands of developers. The code itself is streamlined, simple, up-to-date and designed for use in enterprise settings, making it easier to secure.

In contrast, Walker said, Windows is built on a foundation that makes it hard to secure. It was designed as a single-user operating system with core code developed before the arrival of the Internet. Also, Microsoft keeps adding more features to Windows, increasing its complexity.

"Increasing software's complexity usually increases the possibilities for security problems," said Walker.

Microsoft has not worked with the user and developer community at large to improve its products' technologies, Walker said. This is most evident in the area of security, where Microsoft has relied instead on a "security through obscurity" strategy. "Obviously, the number of security problems Windows has experienced shows that this strategy did not work," said Walker.

Improving security can save money spent on security administration and fixes, but that's not the only reason Linux desktops will end up costing less than Windows ones. "Linux runs better on older hardware than Windows does," Walker said.

Migration planning tips

Once the decision to switch has been made, it's time to plan the move. "Planning is the most important step in a large-scale desktop migration," said Walker.

The four basic steps to planning a migration are choosing a Linux distribution, taking an application inventory, developing a migration strategy and identifying user groups.

Choosing a distribution

When choosing a Linux distribution, be sure to find out which applications that distro supports and the maintenance and support options available for it, Walker said. Other selection criteria include frequency of updates, ease of use and cost.

"Don't discount community support," said Walker. "It can be better than paid support programs."

There are hundreds of Linux distributions, and they're tailored to specific uses, Walker said. He offered these examples:

  • The top two enterprise-focused distributions are SuSE and Red Hat.
  • Debian is a pure open source choice.
  • Xandros is a full desktop package that's easy for Windows users to handle.
  • Gentoo specializes in software distribution features.
  • For ease of use, check out Ubuntu and Mepis.

Application inventories and strategies

Finding a distribution that meets your application needs means that you have to know what those needs are. So, do an application inventory department by department, said Walker.

First, list all applications used in each department on a spreadsheet. Then, categorize them. There are many ways to categorize applications. Walker offers these suggestions for categories:

  • Windows only;
  • Runs on both Windows and Linux;
  • Linux equivalent;
  • Runs in an emulator.

"You may be surprised at how many applications your business is running," said Walker. "Many midsized businesses run 500 to 1,000 apps, and most run almost an application per user."

Once the inventory is complete, develop an application strategy. For example, you must determine what to do with Windows-only applications. Options include porting, rewriting or dropping them. Another option is running the Windows apps through a thin client, or terminal services, using products like VMware or Win4Lin; an option that is sometimes used as a temporary solution and discarded later when apps are ported, replaced or rewritten.

"For a lot of migrations, porting or rewriting apps is less work than admins thought it would be," said Walker.

With a bang or a whisper?

Once the application inventory and strategy is done, decide how quickly the migration is going to take place. Walker suggested three plans:

  • "The Big Bang approach means that you're ripping out everything at once and replacing it," said Walker. "Ball Industries did this successfully, replacing all its Microsoft software in a couple of months." He doesn't recommend this approach often, but in some cases it's the best option. Ball Industries, for instance, had a major licensing dispute with Microsoft.
  • The dual-boot, or emulation stopgap, approach gives users a chance to get comfortable with their Linux desktops. "In dual booting, people may cling to Windows too long," said Walker. He recommends emulation because it makes Linux the primary desktop.
  • An incremental migration takes the desktop from Windows to Linux in two steps. First, the Windows-only desktop is moved to a transitional desktop, wherein some but not all applications have been changed. Here's how that intermediate desktop might look:
    • Microsoft Office runs on a thin client.
    • Microsoft Internet Explorer has been replaced by an open source browser.
    • Windows-based business applications run on thin clients.

"The incremental migration moves applications to open source first on Windows, easing some of the pain of migration," said Walker, who favors this approach. "You get to pure Linux in the next step."

Handling the boxes

Determining how to deal with hardware is the next step in the migration plan. First, does the company have the budget and need for new computers? If so, some migration steps, such as deploying the operating system, are erased. If not, and this is usually the case, a "wipe and reload" plan has to be created, Walker said.

Wiping and reloading a PC can be done in a central depot, which involves a lot of carting, cabling and tracking. Another option is "sneaker net", said Walker, wherein admins go from machine to machine and do installations. Finally, there's the option of using deployment automation software to install Linux on all machines on the network from a central console.

Handling data and users

The next step in planning is determining how to move data and settings. Much of this depends on how much staff time is available, said Walker. Two options -- directly connecting machines and saving to removable storage -- are labor intensive. Saving to a network share is less labor-consuming but requires the proper infrastructure.

Walker recommends migrating to Linux desktops by departments or user groups. Here are some typical users and the migration strategies with which they might be most comfortable:

  • Transactional workers, such as bank tellers, need a transparent migration that does not disrupt their daily tasks or require much training.
  • Power users are engineers or others who have high levels of authority, access to and or power over most of a company's software and systems. They may be entrenched in the platform and applications that they know best. Training and empowerment, along with a transitional migration, might be the best fit for them.
  • Developers may like the Big Bang in theory, but their workload is going to be less burdensome in transitional migration.
  • Knowledge workers are employees who use e-mail, office suites and business applications. Little disruption of daily tasks is important and may be best achieved by a transitional migration.

Throughout the migration planning process, it's important to get user feedback, Walker said. They'll provide some nitty-gritty info that "big plan" executives and IT staff may overlook, such as the most-favored looks for wallpaper and desktop icons and folder preferences. "You have to understand users' expectations and be able to meet all of them," he said.

In the final analysis, Walker said, a Windows-to-Linux desktop migration plan that meets the needs executives and IT staff only may look good on paper, but it's going to go up in flames when dished out to users.

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