Now that official Windows XP support has ended, users are at a turning point. Should they upgrade to new machines so they can reliably run Windows 7 or Windows 8, move over to Mac OS X, or explore an open source operating system?
If you stick with Microsoft, you're still locked into its annoying regular upgrade/buy cycle. Plus, it's easy to run afoul of licensing, regulatory compliance and security when loading third-party software.
Apple is the darling of the young and creative class, but it locks the user in even more than Microsoft. While I appreciate Apple's hardware design and the intuitive functionality built into its products, the quality comes at a pretty hefty price point.
Then there's Linux.
Contrary to what you may have heard, Linux is no longer a hard-to-learn, obscure, do-it-yourself operating system. Since its inception in 1991, the open source operating system has gone through lots of positive changes and iterations. Much of the effort has focused on making it easy for everyday users to ramp up quickly, without a steep learning curve. And you have a choice of going as turnkey or as custom as you'd like.
Linux is all about choice
Linux offers a seemingly endless selection of complete versions, catering to almost every need, and is freely available on the Web.
Pick a hardware platform, and you should be able to find a version of Linux to run on it. That spans everything from antique 386 and 486, to 128 MB RAM, Intel machines, all the way up to the very latest multicore, touchscreen and power notebooks.
Business users could install Linux on their current machines and put off purchasing new equipment, at least through the depreciation period. More adventurous users could buy new equipment and have the hottest, most reliable power notebook available anywhere, using Linux.
Would you like a nice full-featured desktop, with office productivity applications, an email client, a cutting-edge Web browser and interesting animations? Take a look at Kubuntu, which is billed as an open source alternative to Office and Windows.
Maybe you'd like something a little more mainstream for your enterprise-level organization. A great choice might be Red Hat's flavor of Linux.
As a matter of fact, DistroWatch has just about every imaginable version of Linux, and you are sure to find one there to fit your requirements. The site ranks the various distributions, has extensive lists of reviews and comments, and provides updates on new and upcoming releases. It's a great resource for Linux explorers, enthusiasts and entirely new users.
Buy support or develop in-house skills
The way Linux is used and maintained in your organization is also your choice.
Maybe you just need reliable, full-featured, high-availability desktops and notebooks and are in a position to purchase support services from outside sources.
Commercial, enterprise-level support is readily available from a variety of sources. SuSE, Canonical (Ubuntu), Red Hat, IBM, and others can scale maintenance and operations from just a few machines up to thousands. They have entire departments devoted to servicing clients running Linux systems.
Perhaps you like do-it-yourself solutions and realize that it makes more sense to have your own in-house IT people running your Linux systems and servers. Virtually every process, procedure and problem has been dissected and analyzed, with results and expert systems administration advice available all over the Web, as well as in print.
If you want to bring in a Linux pro, it's good to know that most seasoned Linux administrators are usually also adequately equipped to handle Windows and Apple machines, servers and network operations. Get a few of them on your team to speed the transition from Windows to Linux and then don't look back.
Easy to install from a USB drive
Did you know that most versions of Linux will actually run from a USB stick? That's right -- plug in a USB drive with a bootable Linux image and you can operate your computer, even if Windows has gone totally belly-up or your hard-drive has failed. I've occasionally used this setup to repair or troubleshoot a messed-up notebook or desktop.
Running Linux from a USB stick is also great for trying out a particular version before you commit to installing it on the hard-drive. Prior to my last update of Xubuntu -- from version 10.04 to version 11.04 -- I used a USB stick for a day or two to see if I liked the new features.
After the trial period, it was a simple matter of installing that version and mapping everything to all my old files. I use separate disk partitions for Linux system and user files, so upgrading is generally painless, and I don't have to rebuild the whole disk. (In my next article, I'll give a complete rundown on installing Linux from a USB stick.)
Go or no go with Linux
Can an open source operating system work in your organization? The best way to find out is to give it a try.
Requisition a few late-model notebooks from stock and hand them to some of your enthusiastic, up-and-coming IT professionals. Tell them to work it in as a special project, and to install and learn all they can about Linux. Encourage collaboration. Tell them to report back to you personally, in a few weeks or a month. Ping them once or twice, but no more.
You'll have your answer whether Linux is a good fit (or not) and, most importantly, why, in short order. The insight will be invaluable.
About the author:
Rob Reilly is an independent consultant, writer, and speaker serving clients in the private sector, small business and tech media. His analytical and "how-to" articles cover Linux and open source, the Internet of Things, DIY and the Maker Movement and technology career development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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