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Penguins Old, Penguins New, Penguins Battered and Penguins Blue

It’s hard not to feel good about the world when not one but two exciting events featuring penguins make the news in a single week.

Yes, you heard that right!

First, it was the unveiling of the Russian monument to Linux featuring none other than Tux, our favorite penguin of all.

Then, in what appears to be an eerie coincidence — Linux Girl is not making this up — scientists uncovered evidence of a never-before-discovered Giant Prehistoric Penguin!

Now *that’s* news!

The ancient creature apparently sported touches of red in its plumage, too, which adds some sort of weird cosmic logic to Ubuntu 10.10’s default wallpaper.

Go figure!

Sorrow in Solothurn

Anyhoo, moving right along, it was a darn good thing those frisky little landlubbers were on hand to provide some lighthearted distraction in recent days, because elsewhere in the land of Linux, the news wasn’t so good.

Switzerland, that is — specifically, the canton of Solothurn, which recently aborted a 9-year-old plan to migrate its computers to Linux, and is now planning to put them all on Windows 7 instead.

Could there be a more disheartening story?

The project’s afflictions included implementation delays, immature software and “disgruntled employees whose displeasure allegedly culminated in the creation of a home page dedicated to venting their gripes and who were so busy grappling with Linux that they no longer managed to do their jobs,” explains a special report in The H.

‘Penguin Trouble’

Not only that, but “a number of custom applications couldn’t readily be replaced with Linux solutions,” and “there were problems with the Konsul database Solothurn uses for processing government council decisions,” the report notes.

Local press reports, meanwhile, featured headlines including, “More trouble with the penguin.”

Bottom line: “Desktop computers will apparently be migrated to Windows 7 in 2011, and Outlook will replace the Scalix web mail client.”

*Sigh*.

‘They Did Things Bassbackwards’

Were Linux bloggers mum on the topic? Er, can penguins fly?

“Sounds like they did things bassbackwards,” opined Slashdot blogger commodore64_love, for example.

“When migrating to Linux, it should be a two step process: Switch to all open-source apps (OpenOffice, Firefox, etc) while still using the familiar Windows environment; then switch to open-source a year or two later, while still keeping the same apps,” commodore64_love explained. “Step 1 is where the real cost savings come from (imho).”

Similarly: “They seem to have hired a bunch of incompetent nincompoops to oversee the migration, so they failed to prepare, failed to even have a real roadmap, and failed to have critical modules ready to come online when required,” wrote Runaway1956. “This looks more like an indictment of the tech people than of Linux.”

Of course, “now they’ll have a new project manager along with the new software, and people will mistakenly think that it’s the new software that solved the problems… ,” lamented Darinbob.

All in all, a miserable situation. Linux Girl took to the blogosphere’s seedy Broken Windows lounge for some liquid comfort.

‘Why Tolerate Insubordination?’

“It’s clear the migration to GNU /Linux had lots of problems, but it’s not clear the status,” noted blogger Robert Pogson, referring to a different report that suggests FOSS might still be part of Solothurn’s plan.

“The translations of German documents by Google are not clean enough for me to judge, but there are reports that 70 percent of desktops have migrated, so it seems a bit late to abort,” Pogson pointed out. “It seems the technical problems are few and a minority of users are resisting change.”

The canton, in fact, “should fire those and hire more flexible people,” Pogson suggested. “Seriously, why would an employer tolerate insubordination? There are thousands of people ready, willing and able to work with GNU/Linux.

“If GNU/Linux gives the canton the efficiency and performance it needs, why should employees be allowed to say, ‘No’?” he added. “That would not be tolerated in any place where I have worked.”

At Pogson’s current employer, “we brought in GNU/Linux with little fanfare, just swapping it for dead/dying XP machines, and there has been no fuss at all,” he noted. “Why are the canton’s employees different — or is that just hype by the media to sell papers?”

‘Moving to Linux Is Very Disruptive’

Indeed, “it really sounds like they did that conversion backwards,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack said. “You can hardly call it Linux’s fault if you didn’t make sure your custom applications are able to handle Linux before you started.”

Migration is difficult, and “done right it is very slow,” Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told Linux Girl. “We shouldn’t be surprised that there are failures here.”

The basic problem is that “moving from Windows to Linux is very disruptive,” he opined. “The two systems do not behave the same on a network, they have different strengths and weaknesses, etc.”

Moving from Windows to Linux takes more than commitment, in fact — “it takes understanding both systems well and how to rethink the network in the event of such a move,” Travers added. “I usually tell people that successful migrations are done slowly over five to seven years, and that anything faster than that is always very painful.”

Even on that timeframe, however, “it isn’t a sure thing,” he warned. “It takes skill, attention and listening to make it work.”

‘It Is the Apps’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet focused more on the technology itself.

“It is not the OS, it is the apps,” he asserted. “Nobody ‘runs’ Windows — they run MS Office, Quicken/Quickbooks, Photoshop, Sony Vegas, Cubase, etc. The simple fact is many of the apps required for a successful business are Windows-only and have NO equivalent in Linux.”

In OpenOffice.org, for example, “Writer is good, but the rest isn’t frankly up to MS Office 2K standards,” he opined.

“If Linux is to have ANY shot in business, the anti-proprietary attitude has to go,” hairyfeet concluded. “Most companies will NOT give you their code, full stop. It isn’t gonna happen, period. Which means you need to make it simple for them to support Linux.”

‘Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory’

Then there’s the cost of “replacing all those apps, replacing or retraining all those workers, hiring Linux system admins and finally dealing with all the ‘fun’ of having to buy workstation-class hardware even for the secretaries just to get Linux hardware compatibility,” hairyfeet added. “That quickly makes ‘free as in beer’ the more expensive proposal, as the Swiss found out.”

Regardless of one’s view on those questions, however, it’s clear that “we learn more from our failures than our successes,” as Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, pointed out.

“This was a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and no amount of excuse-making will change that,” she noted. “Still, history is great, if only because it helps us recognize our mistakes when we repeat them.”

‘Not-So-Easy Lessons’

Three “not-so-easy lessons” can be taken away from the Solothurn story, Hudson suggested:

Problem #1: “There will always be a significant minority that will resist any change.”

Lesson #1: “Plan for resistance, and be ready to modify plans accordingly. Giving up a little early on can mean not losing everything later. No battle plan survives the first engagement intact.”

Problem #2: “Trying to change from one computer monoculture to another ignores practicalities.”

Lesson #2: “Be practical. Save ideology for church on Sunday or discussing politics at the family reunion.”

Problem #3: “Nothing was ready on time, and a lot didn’t work as promised.”

Lesson #3: “Don’t over-promise, don’t over-sell. You’re not the 800-pound monkey — you can’t sell vaporware and then fling poo at your customers and hope some of it sticks.”

7 Comments

  • The fact is, Linux as a desktop is quite capable in many, many roles in a small to midsize business. I run it, and do all my financial accounting via Linux (and LedgerSMB, btw), Gnumeric is the best spreadsheet I’ve ever worked with, etc.

    I have customers for whom I have played a significant role in their migration from Windows to Linux. These range from very small businesses to midsized ones. So the fact is, it’s not the apps.

    The problem is that the systems are very different. People look at Windows as a platform for running software they purchase online or at the store and shape their business around the software. Linux instead provides a toolkit approach, and a great deal of additional planning is necessary to make a Linux deployment work particularly well, but when it works, it usually works a great deal better than the Windows deployments it is replacing.

    The secret to making a migration work is patience, planning, listening, and a gradual approach. This means, for example, slowly moving internal tools over to cross-platform frameworks over the course of their normal life-cycles, moving departments over from one platform to another one at a time, and being willing to back out for one department and come back to it later if an unforeseen need causes productivity issues. While IT staff may need some additional training, I usually tell people to focus on making the system setup as easy to use as possible, meaning a quick orientation to the new system is sufficient and can be shoe-horned into training on new tools.

    But you can’t expect Linux to be a drop-in replacement for Windows anymore than you can expect the reverse.

  • I run my and other Desktops very well using Linux. Thank you very much! Networking is a snap and other Linux options.

    I guess you’d never hit upon any of the other OS solutions. Let alone back-end applications. That run on things not Microsoft.

    Geez…

    I guess I’ll go back to the Microsoft solution, not!

    • Have you? Quickbooks/Quicken, Photoshop, specialized apps galore, most of which have NO replacement in FOSS. I’ve said this a million times and I’ll say it again:

      If ALL you need to do is surf the web, or edit word docs? Not a problem, Linux works quite well. I myself have refurbed several machine for charity where all they needed was a basic database and a way to input stats. Again no problem for Linux.

      What bites you in the behind and what will keep the vast majority on Windows for many years to come IS THE APPS. Those thousands of specialized apps to do their jobs, from the medical transcription software at the local doctor’s office to the CC checking software at the local insurance company, all of it runs on Windows and NOT Linux. And frankly while I give the Wine guys credit having the kernel on up changing like the shifting sand makes Wine a losing proposition. Apps that work in Foo don’t work in Foo+1, it is frankly a mess in FOSS right now.

      So while I’m glad it works for you as a retailer I wouldn’t touch Linux for my products with a 50 foot pole. Heck out of the four test bed PCs, with bog standard hardware that I set up to test the viability of Linux, guess how many updated without breaking hardware? NONE. How is anybody supposed to support that?

      • I know, I know you want to find all the solutions with Microsoft and all those apps. Years ago it was games, lack of wifi support.

        I’d like to know what the really high finance guys run or what Microsoft OS people really run, and the confusion about changing between Microsoft changes, bugs, fixes, and how all those special apps try to keep up. Down time with Microsoft is awesome.

        Build what you want around Linux, and open source and it works.

        • Maybe the problem isn’t your 4 "test beds" or linux, but the distro? Use a distro that gets real testing from an experienced vendor like Novell or RedHat, and not Ubuntu.

          I’ve been doing in-place version upgrades on my machines for a few years now with OpenSUSE, and the only problem I’ve had was that I had to swap the left and right LCDs after one upgrade – and that was because I had previously written a custom xorg.conf instead of using the generated one.

          Even the laptop doesn’t break – and we all know how much fussier laptops are 🙂

          • Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t both SUSE and Redhat PAY software? Why would I pay for Linux? If it is gonna cost me I might as well stay with windows and deal with less customer hassles. I know there is Fedora, but that is a bleeding edge test bed, and IIRC OpenSUSE is also a test bed for Novell.

            Sadly the ONLY one I had any luck with on upgrades was Xandros Home, and it cost nearly as much as MSFT Home so was likewise pointless. I think that kinda goes to what I’ve been saying though, that free just can’t beat pay because bug fixing costs real money, and free developers care about new apps and NOT the lousy boring bugfixing.

          • Hi:

            Yes, features make it into Fedora and OpenSuse before they get into RHEL and SLED. That on its own doesn’t mean much – both RHEL and SLED are products that have a much slower rate of change because of their target market. And yes, both RHEL and SLED are paid-support products. Some people want that. Some people NEED that. Just like some people need a baseline that doesn’t change every 6 months with a new release.

            Neither Fedora nor OpenSuse are "bleeding-edge test beds" – each one maintains a repository for the bleeding-edge stuff, as well as a series of milestone and release candidates for those who like playing with knives.

            > I think that kinda goes to what I’ve been saying
            > though, that free just can’t beat pay because
            > bug fixing costs real money, and free
            > developers care about new apps and NOT the
            > lousy boring bugfixing.

            If I may, I would like to take a moment to point out the other side of the coin. Lost productivity due to lack of bug fixes in proprietary software isn’t free. Open source simply has a better value proposition – whether you use a product with community support of opt for paid support, the true value isn’t reflected in the price you pay. It’s one of those things that, when people focus so much on the price, I can’t help but think about the saying "people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

            Now on the topic of bugs, I *love* playing "Hunt the Wumpus" with bugs. Bug fixes are only boring if you don’t have either a personal involvement in the project or code, and you’re being paid to do it.

            It’s one reason why commercial code stays buggy – you can’t get the same level of commitment from paid bug hunters that you can from an enthusiast or from someone who takes personal pride in their product – plus there’s less of a disconnect between bug fixing and end users than in the closed-source world.

            In the proprietary world, it’s not like the customer can have a few extra eyes look at the source (and most of the time even the paid testers can’t see it).

            And the other reason commercial code stays buggy? If they fix all the bugs, who’s going to buy an upgrade? Look at the market failure known as Vista. In comparison, XP was much more buggy when it first came out. I was able to consistently crash a fresh install within 5 seconds of being given the mouse, which is one of the reasons I didn’t bother accepting my free developer’s copy of XP and Office from Microsoft during their world tour – even back then, Iif you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors) the writing was on the wall for those who cared to read the tea leaves.

            On the Xandros Home thing? I’ve seen it before on ultra-cheap machines from the early part of the last decade. Xandros never upgraded their kernel, so your BIOS timing bug was never exposed.

            Too often, people take whatever spare or obsolete machine they have hanging around when it comes to testing linux, then complain about the disappointing performance and general lack of usability, or the lack of hardware support.

            It takes time for the industry to standardize on components, and some hardware gets "left behind", such as obsolete webcams and wireless adapters, that simply don’t conform to the standards. In many cases, the blame lies squarely with the manufacturer skimping on $$$ – winmodems are a good example – they’re not really modems, just an electrical interface, which is why they were both cheaper and required pentium-class machines to give 286 performance.

            A fair trial would be to spend a few bucks on a new hard disk, and install it on your latest and greatest machine – the one you use every day. Not some worn-out piece of junk that you can’t even donate. I’m not saying you’re doing this – just that I’ve seen this so often that I think it needs repeating.

            So why not give OpenSUSE a try? Novell’s done a lot of work not just to support it, but also to defend linux in court. They deserve a bit of love in return 🙂

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