Technology

The Open-Minded Desktop

Any technology leader who still doubts that open-source solutions are a viable alternative to Microsoft's desktop dominance needs to visit one of the six branches...
by | December 31, 2006
 

Any technology leader who still doubts that open-source solutions are a viable alternative to Microsoft's desktop dominance needs to visit one of the six branches of the Howard County library system in Maryland.

On a recent afternoon at Howard's Central Library in Columbia, a suburb between Washington and Baltimore, all of the public-access computers were in use by a range of patrons, from teenagers to seniors. This was hardly a crowd of techies and geeks. But instead of working or playing on a familiar Windows screen, these customers were using computers that ran a version of a Unix-like Linux interface, the open-source operating system most commonly used to run servers, and OpenOffice, a free alternative to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the rest of Microsoft's other best-selling Office software.

Howard began converting its customers to these and other open-source tools primarily as a way to protect the library's hardware from the viruses and other "malware" that were widely afflicting the library's public computers. Starting in 2005, the library began replacing Microsoft Office with OpenOffice on most of the 300 Windows-based computers used by its own staff. And a Linux operating system for the employees' computers is next on the agenda.

The lessons that the tech managers at the Howard library have picked up along the way may be instructive to others hoping to avoid the cost of Microsoft's latest Windows and Office upgrades.

First, the open-source tools work. OpenOffice users, for instance, can create and save documents, spreadsheets and presentations in common formats that only rarely cause glitches when exchanged between the Microsoft and the open-source software suites. OpenOffice lacks some of Microsoft's functionality, but other features are as good or superior. Mastering slightly different functions and menu configurations takes users time, but the library managers say OpenOffice has been reliable for most of the memo-writing and other routine computer work their employees do.

The Howard staff also found that making the switch has saved money -- an important consideration for a library system that gets about 95 percent of its revenue from county and state taxpayers. Converting the 300 publicly used computers cost just over $2,000, almost all of which went to Open Sense Solutions, a Wisconsin consulting company whose version of Linux, called Groovix, the library used. That was still less than $7 a machine -- far less than a Windows or Microsoft Office upgrade.

There were additional costs, such as the funds the library shelled out from its roughly $140,000 annual tech budget to add memory to its public computers. But there also were other offsetting savings. Information technology manager Amy Begg De Groff says she has been able to run the Linux-OpenOffice combination on a collection of six- to seven-year-old desktop computers, extending their life and delaying the purchase of new machines.

In addition, the open-source operating system enables as many as six users, each with his or her own monitor, mouse and keyboard, to simultaneously share a single computer's CPU -- in effect turning one computer into half a dozen. That kind of functionality ought to be of special interest to other government technology managers whose users include large customer-service or data-entry centers.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the Howard library's conversion to open-source has been its lack of religious zeal. Departments with specific needs for certain Microsoft tools have continued to use them. The library's card catalog system also remains Microsoft-dependent. And a handful of other employees have been allowed to stick with Microsoft's Office 97 -- with an understanding that it will not be upgraded and that any hardware failure will require a change.

In addition, the library's tech staff initially set the OpenOffice applications to save files by default in familiar Microsoft file formats, such as Word documents, to help ease the transition and facilitate document exchanges. That would have been heresy for some open-source advocates.

While tech staffs are often anxious to standardize systems as much and as quickly as possible, such open-mindedness and flexibility may be the key to successfully managing a large-scale open-source transition.

De Groff says mastering a Unix-like operating system or tools like OpenOffice is no harder than mastering a new version of Microsoft's software. Public tech managers considering how and when to roll out the latest upgrades from Microsoft might want to consider their options. For the first time in a long time, they might find they have some.

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