Strategy Clinic: Is now the time to make a move to Linux?

Linux, security and holiday cover: readers' solutions to recent Strategy Clinic problems

Linux, security and holiday cover: readers' solutions to recent Strategy Clinic problems

How can I evaluate Linux without wasting money?

The Linux/open source debate leaves me cold, but I am getting pressure from above, where the directors are thinking of potential cost savings, and below, where a number of staff are pressing for us to evaluate it. How can I keep both sides happy without wasting a lot of time and money?

Treat Linux as any other product selection

This is an area where market pressure is driving users to consider alternatives and for some organisations the benefits of an open source product are being realised. There is still reluctance from some IT managers to progress down this route as Linux/open source can still have a geeky reputation. However, a number of big players have taken the step and a proper review may be timely.

To ensure you keep both sides happy, you should treat this as you would any third-party product selection:

  • Clearly define the scope of the evaluation and identify the benefits to be achieved
  • Identify the features that need to be provided by the solution, ranking the most important ones
  • Evaluate the market offerings against these, scoring each supplier against each aspect
  • Select the top two or three products and bring those in for a brief pilot
  • The pilot should be run by a relatively small team, which shares a set of tightly-controlled objectives. The evaluation should be run as a project and not as a technical playground.

There are a number of key factors to look at in deciding whether Linux is appropriate for your organisation, and would be considered for any open source product. These should include supplier support, criticality of the services you would be running, upgrades, security, etc.

Essentially, you should treat the selection of Linux/open source as you would any operating system conversion and hopefully keep both parties happy.

Tom Clark, IT manager, international financial services company

The switch from Unix to Linux can cut costs

Linux is now an opportunity you cannot afford to ignore. Shifting from proprietary Unix to Linux can offer immediate cost savings and with recent developments in open source and Linux, now is the time to act.

There is now a tactical choice for companies running large Unix installations. Linux offers a way of shifting the sourcing of IT to an open standards strategy with little pain and significant gain.

Linux is a robust system with a strong market. This makes it worth consideration, even if a conservative approach is taken. As existing hardware requires refreshing, there is an opportunity to port the applications it runs to Linux and to run them either on lower-cost hardware or to "multi-host" them on an existing platform with spare capacity. Migration can be painless.

After the last two years of cost-cutting, more savings from consolidation or from reduced staffing will be hard to find. Linux can offer an immediate opportunity for cost savings.

A careful examination of the total cost of ownership in the light of migration costs, patch and maintenance requirements, licence management, support needs and security risks will offer organisations clear insight in the factors that matter most. There may be strategic reasons for not choosing open source, but shifting from Unix to Linux can be tactically attractive and will quickly clarify strategic benefits.

David Sumray, IT strategist, PA Consulting Group

Create a philosophy and take it one step at a time

IT managers get involved with open source either because of their previous Unix background or because they try out a single product, are impressed by it, and see the benefits the open source approach offers. For example, in view of the publicised security issues concerning Internet Explorer, they might try a non-Microsoft browser such as Mozilla that runs on Microsoft Windows.

Having gained confidence with the quality of open source, the next steps could include using Apache - which has 67% of the web server market - and deploying Samba for file and print services for Microsoft Windows PCs.

Adopting open source tools for software development meets the objective of ensuring applications are free from proprietary lock-in. Try migrating to Open Office, running on Microsoft Windows. These all result in cost savings.

When it comes to the latest hardware, Linux runs well on the 64-bit Intel/AMD processors and enables server consolidation. Applications that run on several 32-bit servers can be hosted on a single 64-bit Linux server. This again gives significant savings.

Finally the desktop. An open source desktop is not simply about replacing Microsoft Windows with Linux. It is about running applications that are free from the underlying desktop operating system, so ensuring freedom of choice. The Open CD project is well worth examining. This is a collection of high-quality open source software that runs on Windows and Linux. Where existing desktop applications cannot be replaced, running them as "thin clients" on a server with the display output to the desktop enables legacy applications to be run independently of the operating system.

Open source should not be considered as a series of products which, because they are free, provide low-cost alternatives to proprietary software. Open source provides a philosophy that can result in highly reliable, stable, low-cost systems that are designed to work with open source and proprietary software.

Eddie Bleasdale, Netproject

How can I get security to the top of the agenda?

Following an 18-month freeze, the board is considering increasing the IT budget. It wants a list of priorities with cost and return details. The priority should be security and infrastructure but ROI is difficult to demonstrate and projects are expensive. How can I ensure we tackle these first?

Convince the board that IT is not a cost centre

Avoid the doom-and-gloom pressure tactics, as this will heighten the awareness of inadequacies in your infrastructure and can lead to a loss of confidence.

Your focus should be on strengthening the existing structure to provide a solid backbone that is growing in line with the business. Do all you can to find the intangible benefits - reduced downtime, increased productivity, faster archiving and retrieval of information, lower legal fees - that can be given a fiscal value without sounding as if you are grasping.

You must ensure your board sees the IT infrastructure as an enabler to business growth, rather than a drain on finances. Highlight where your plans will offer the potential to open new markets, or new channels to existing markets.

IT is often seen as a cost centre rather than a revenue stream. Hopefully, your board will realise that, for your IT infrastructure to perform invisibly, seamlessly and above all securely, investment in technology is truly an investment in the business as a whole.

Scott Thompson, IT director, Brown & Newirth

How can I solve annual holiday headache?

My IT team of 15 is unable to meet its workload without using contractors. Most staff take a holiday during the school break. We cannot afford to lose staff by refusing reasonable leave requests, but management does not see the need for extra resources. How can I avoid this in future?

Try the Austrian way - employ students

Here in Austria we have solved this problem. Almost every firm takes on students for a duration of four to eight weeks to fulfil a variety of roles during the summer holidays.

In IT departments it is usual to take on students in the ratio of about one student to 10 permanent staff. The students usually carry out discrete tasks (eg write non-core programs or physical hardware audits), reducing the backlog.

They also provide cover for holidays on front-line tasks (such as helpdesk support or running routine daily operations). Most students in IT departments are studying IT courses at school or university. The students gain practical experience, something to add to their CV, have a reference for future employers and get paid at student-level wages (much below normal full-time staff payment levels).

The IT department gains a pair of hands when urgently needed (to cover for staff holidays) and they also get a chance to "try before they buy" in that more than 20% of students will end up taking a permanent job with one of the firms they have worked for during the summer holidays - truly a win-win situation.

As an ex-pat from the UK, I found the level of student involvement in IT departments very surprising when I first came to Austria - now I find it amazing that the UK does not do it.

Dave White, business consultant

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