Opening doors to open source

Migrating to Linux shouldn’t involve major disruptions

Los Angeles city officials recently pushed for a switch to open-source software so that they could save more than $5 million in licensing fees. They felt the money could be better used for other services. In making the switch, they joined a growing chorus of support for open-source technology from cash-strapped federal, state and local government agencies.

There seems little doubt that the open-source movement is finally gathering the steam many people predicted for it. Market researchers at IDC say the Linux operating system, for example, is no longer a niche phenomenon.

In a recent study they prepared for Open Source Development Labs, IDC researchers put global Linux revenues at just less than $15 billion in 2004 and projected them to soar to nearly $36 billion by 2008.

And yet, even though some areas of the government have used Linux for years, many are still reluctant to make a move to open-source software, mainly because of the perceived risks of what they still see as an unproven, weakly supported system compared to the ones they know best, Microsoft Windows or Unix, for example.

"There will always be people who are naysayers about Linux and who want to stick with Microsoft," said Kapil Lohia, architect for Linux development at Computer Associates International. "We have no trouble with Microsoft, but Linux does work, and as long as the right steps are used [to install it], it will succeed."

What to watch for

What you shouldn't do, Lohia and others said, is adopt Linux for Linux's sake. Instead, administrators must first evaluate the mix of applications and the environment in which they are being used when considering Linux. That approach will also give a realistic view of what converting to Linux will cost.

For example, said Scott Handy, vice president for worldwide Linux at IBM, if the applications you need are written for both Windows and Linux, then moving to Linux is the same as any other operating system upgrade. But if you are running something that only runs on Windows, such as Microsoft Exchange, moving can be more difficult.

"In migrating to Linux, 15 percent of the costs go to porting the applications and 35 percent to testing and tuning" the result, Handy said.

"But the only time you get into a lot of custom work is if an application is suboptimized to a particular operating system," he said.

In mixed environments, it's better to tackle the easier tasks first, he said.

Generally speaking, moving to Linux from Unix is far easier than moving from Microsoft systems. Unix and Linux are cousins, after all, and people with Unix experience generally have little trouble moving applications to Linux, experts say.

But you can get overconfident if you think that's all you need to do. When officials at the National Weather Service (NWS) upgraded their old Hewlett-Packard Unix workstations to Linux running on Intel-based systems, a process they began in 2000, they found Linux-specific expertise would have helped.

"The migration was fast and our own Unix people were well able to do the recode and recompiles," said Deirdre Jones, chief of systems engineering at NWS. "But we hit a problem that delayed us by about four to six weeks."

It turned out that the problem was with the Linux kernel, which needed to be replaced, she said. Officials probably would have identified the problem much faster if they had Linux expertise.

NWS eventually cultivated a team of Linux-savvy people, Jones said, and they plan to complete the migration later this year.

Having people with Linux expertise on staff mitigated much of the risk when city officials in Bloomington, Ind., migrated their information technology enterprise from Unix to Linux. That expertise saved retraining expenses that otherwise could have wiped out the savings from making the switch.

"The Unix environment is not that different from Linux anyway, but the fact that we had a number of people with Linux experience already was significant," said Rick Dietz, Bloomington's director of information and technology services.

However, organizations also need people who know the ins and outs of the existing systems, Jones said. New and old systems will have to co-exist for a time during any migration, she said, and that could lead to conflicts such as input/output issues that must be resolved in both systems.

Management matters

Systems management concerns should be among the first elements of preparing for a migration, said Paul Smith, vice president of government sales operations at Red Hat. In the past, organizations usually deployed the technology first and worried about management later, but the order should be reversed, he said.

Likewise, security is something that needs attention all the way through the migration, particularly with a move from Microsoft. Red Hat's version of Linux has subsystems embedded in it that enforce priority-based controls, which could conflict with the other environment's security, Smith said.

"But the thing to remember in any migration is that we really are not talking about a major disruption of the enterprise," he said. "The process is evolutionary, and you don't have to replace every server immediately with Linux. All the systems can co-exist, and this can evolve smoothly over time."

Despite the fact that Linux is now in the mainstream, the general rule when bringing any new technology into an organization is that the biggest concern is managing the risk, Lohia said.

"We always recommend that people start with something that is obviously manageable," he said. "Then the risk is controlled."

Linux still scarce for desktop PCs

Although Linux is a well-established option for servers, it has yet to make its presence known at the desktop level, which many experts believe will define its success.

In February, Open Source Development Labs issued Version 1.0 of its Desktop Linux Capabilities document, the first attempt by key vendors, users and developers to jointly define what elements are necessary to make Linux a viable option for desktop PCs.

So far, however, few organizations have chosen to include desktop computers in

their Linux migrations. Those that do should carefully choose which employees to target for conversion.

Many people use only simple word processing and spreadsheet applications and don’t need a full Microsoft Office suite, said Kapil Lohia, architect for Linux development at Computer Associates International. Those users are good targets for switching to Linux, but employees who are power users of Office products won’t be.

On the other hand, he said, administrators can be more flexible with application developers and other technically sophisticated users. They will generally find it easy to adapt to working in a Linux environment.

However, mixed desktop environments have their own concerns, he warned.

“For many years, IT organizations have tried to standardize on one desktop environment, so they are not geared to deal with several different ones,” Lohia said. “There will be compatibility problems [between Linux and Windows] across the enterprise, and the problems associated with things such as sharing of files, accessing directories and so on will be significant.”

— Brian Robinson

How to cross the threshold

Linux migrations will be different for each organization, but here are some pointers to make the process easier for everyone involved.

  • Plan carefully, particularly when working in complicated environments. Consider how Linux will fit into your existing setup. Remember that Linux has different security requirements and uses different tools than either Microsoft Windows or Unix systems, so be sure to evaluate the needs of the entire infrastructure.
  • Test the new technology in a lab before moving onto a larger-scale deployment. Even when converting from Unix to Linux, you must still consider the impact on applications and work through any issues before deployment.
  • Fully account for your users’ training needs. The differences between Windows and Linux in particular are substantial, so the cost of training users could be significant. Also, make sure you have the correct mix of expertise available, including technical support staff with strong Linux skills. In general, however, the level of administration needed for a Linux environment is far less than for Windows.
  • Consider what outside resources you might need. Even if you think you have covered all of your bases, you might still need to hire someone to manage security patches, though many of the major Linux distributors are starting to provide such support.
  • Line up internal support for the transition ahead of time. Particularly when switching from Windows environments, you could run into cultural issues so make sure you have a high level of support for the migration.

— Brian Robinson

The 2014 Federal 100

Get to know the 100 women and men honored this year for going above and beyond in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above