Vincent Ryan,

Organizations thinking of terminating Windows desktop licenses and removing the de facto industry standard operating system from their networks finally have a legitimate basis for undertaking such a high-risk switch. Linux (news - web sites) desktop distributions are gaining in momentum and functionality, and Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT - news) controversial licensing policies are making Windows maintenance costly.

So, is Microsoft removal possible? Although the labor and costs required to make such a switch can be daunting, some organizations -- guitar string manufacturer Ernie Ball, for example -- have made successful attempts. But for most organizations, removing Microsoft from the desktop may seem so difficult that they give up before they even try.

Cost Questions

A "rip and replace" removal of Windows from the desktop is still very much the exception rather than the rule, Laura Didio, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, told NewsFactor. "The move to Linux is not a stampede. Linux is nibbling at the fringes," Didio said.

Cost complexity is a big reason why organizations are still reluctant to make a switch to Linux, Didio said. The question of what is the total cost of ownership of Linux vs. Windows is still unanswered. For example, "if Linux is a free OS, does that mean you'll get a price break if you get it preloaded on hardware?" Didio asked.

The enormity of a Microsoft removal is also a key consideration and one that stops many organizations cold. "If you even go to upgrade a minor application these days, it's a major headache," Didio said. "Most companies look at any major change to the network with fear and loathing."

Labors of Hercules

Given the interdependence of technologies in a network, uprooting a Microsoft installation is a "complex, onerous undertaking," Didio said. Concurrent with replacing desktops, an organization would also have to upgrade things like storage, bandwidth and security. "It's not a stand-alone, isolated project," she said. "It becomes like the 101 labors of Hercules."

For large enterprises, replicating the performance, reliability, and scalability of the Microsoft OSes would be key, Didio said. An organization also would need to be assured that once the new software was up and running, it would have access to reliable and always-available technical services and support.

"For years, we've seen the small Linux vendors talk about how they're going to make money on Linux services, but we've never seen an independent cost breakdown," Didio said.

Supporting Linux is still very difficult, Rob Enderle, research fellow at Forrester Research, told NewsFactor, because most centralized management tools do not work with Linux. Additionally, desktop alternatives -- such as StarOffice or Open Office -- are not 100 percent compatible with Microsoft office. "[IT] incurs much more support costs and downtime," Enderle said. "The savings [are] chewed up in support costs."

Although a number of Microsoft removals have been attempted, many have failed in the trial stage, Enderle said, because organizations quickly figure out that the costs exceed the benefits.

Making the Switch

Despite all the hurdles, there are companies defying the odds. Guitar-string manufacturer Ernie Ball was highly motivated to become Windows-free: Three years ago, it had to pay US$90,000 because 8 percent of its Microsoft software was "noncompliant," or pirated. Microsoft subsequently ran a press release and an ad campaign around Ernie Ball's infringement. Infuriated by how the company was treated, Ernie Ball executives decided to clean house.

Given 120 days to become compliant, Ernie Ball's IT department investigated Linux and Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW - news) solutions for its 80 end users. "We wanted to get away from the personal desktop," Jeff Whitmore, IT manager at Ernie Ball, told NewsFactor.

The choice the company made was to run a Red Hat (Nasdaq: RHAT - news) Linux server and graphical X sessions for individual users. Word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications were provided by Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite. The company's Microsoft Exchange Server was replaced with qmail, and mail clients eventually were switched to Ximian's Evolution.

"Most of our time was spent with Linux to make sure it would give people a look and feel that they were used to," Whitmore said. The company's IT group spent about 30 days evaluating Sun's thin client and Linux, and then another month configuring the Linux setup, so that the Linux clients would "wake up," run a script to connect to the X server, and present a graphical screen. "That was really our biggest challenge," Whitmore said.

The company then spent another 30 days working with selected end users to test the system, and the final 30 days to migrate the rest of the company's desktops.

Hardware Savings

According to Ernie Ball's estimate, in the first year it saved $90,000 that it would have spent upgrading desktop machines for Windows and buying new Windows licenses. "Most of our machines worked fine as thin clients, but they wouldn't have been able to run the newer Windows stuff," Whitmore said.

The cost to make the switch, besides labor and the $75 per-user charge for StarOffice, was the price of two dual-processor 800 MHz Dell (Nasdaq: DELL - news) servers. "The amount of memory in the server is key -- each user will use about 10 Mb of memory," he explained.

Whitmore considers the conversion a resounding success. "It's the best thing we've done -- as far as cutting down on IT administration and [cutting out] the cost of [a vendor] holding you hostage over their licensing plans," he said.

Having developed expertise with Linux in the migration, Ernie Ball now is migrating its Sun StarOffice applications to OpenOffice, a freely distributed application suite. "We don't really need the bells and whistles that Sun has added at this time," Whitmore said. The company also is contemplating moving its back-office applications -- inventory control, MRP (manufacturing requirements planning) and the like -- from SCO Unix (news - web sites) to Linux.

Fear Factor

For the majority of organizations, though, it seems that Linux is not an attractive replacement for Microsoft at the desktop level. In an era when IT departments are underbudgeted and understaffed, undertaking a switch -- especially in a large organization -- entails too much risk and cost.

According to Enderle, Linux adoption is analogous to the adoption of client/server in the 1980s. The early adopters incurred massive costs and paved the way for the organizations that came later.

The initial successful deployments of Linux desktops will likely come through companies like IBM (NYSE: IBM - news), which has put a lot of resources behind Linux and would be able to offer reliable services and support packages to organizations, Enderle said. In doing that, IBM would be removing some of the risk factors that have many IT departments putting off the question of whether or not to remove Windows from the desktop. Once the fear is gone, who knows how far Linux can go?