Open, open, open. Yes, I sound like a stuck record but every time I hit this one it makes me really angry.
I regularly source equipment and software for small-medium enterprises, SMEs. Usually these are charities and obviously they want to save as much money as they can with their hardware and software costs. Second-hand hardware is usually order of the day. PCs around 3-years old are pretty easy to obtain and will usually run most current software.
But what about that software? On the surface the answer seems simple: To lower costs use free or Open Source software (OSS). The argument for Linux, OpenOffice and other groupware applications is pretty compelling. So what does it really mean on the ground?
Let’s take our example office:
Three PCs called “office1”, “office2” and “finance” connected together using powerline networking. There’s an ADSL broadband router which provides wireless for three laptops and also a small NAS with RAID1 for backups and shared files.
Okay, now the fun starts. The office has grown “organically” over the last 10 years. The current state is that Office1 runs XP 64-bit; Office2 runs Vista Ultimate and the once-per-week-use “finance” runs Windows 2000 for Sage and a Gift Aid returns package. All three use Windows Backup weekly to the NAS. Office1 & Office2 use Microsoft Office 2007. Office1 uses Exchange for mail and calendars, Office2 uses Windows Mail and Palm Desktop. Both RDP and VNC are also used to manage all machines.
So, what happens now is that the Gift Aid package is retired and the upgrade is to use web access but can’t run on MSIE 6. Okay. Upgrade to MSIE 8. Nope – won’t run on Win2k. How about MSIE 7? Nope, can’t download that any more (good!). Right, then an operating system upgrade is in order.
What do I use? Ubuntu of course. Well, is it that easy? I need to support the (probably antique) version of Sage Accounts on there. So how about Windows XP? Hmm – XP is looking a bit long in the tooth now. Vista? You must be joking – train-wreck! So Windows 7 is the only option. Can’t use Home Premium because it doesn’t support RDP without hacking it. So I’m forced to use Win 7 Pro. That’s £105 for the OEM version or £150 for the “full” version. All that and I’ll probably still have to upgrade Sage, AND the finance machine is only used once a week. What the hell?
Back to the drawing-board.
What else provides RDP? Most virtualisation systems do – Xen, virtualbox and the like. I use Virtualbox quite a lot and it comes with a great RDP service built in for whatever virtual machine is running. Cool – so I can virtualise the win2k instance using something like the VMWare P2V converter and upgrade the hardware and it’ll run everything, just faster (assuming the P2V works ok)…
No, wait – that still doesn’t upgrade the browser for the Gift Aid access. Ok, I could create a new WinXP virtual machine – that’s more recent than Win2k and bound to be cheaper – because Virtualbox gives me RDP I don’t need the professional version, “xp home” would do, as much as it makes me cringe. How much does that cost? Hell, about £75 for the OEM version. What??? For an O/S that’ll be retired in a couple of years? You have to be kidding! And I repeat, Vista is not an option, it’s a bad joke.
I’m fed up with this crap!
Okay, options, options, I need options. Virtualise the existing Win2k machine for Sage and leave the Ubuntu Firefox web browser installation for the updated Gift Aid. Reckon that’ll work? It’ll leave the poor techno-weenie guy who does the finances with a faster PC which is technically capable of doing everything he needs but with an unfamiliar interface.
If I were feeling particularly clever I could put Firefox on the Win2k VM, make the VM start on boot using VBoxHeadless; configure Ubuntu to auto-login and add a Win2k-VM-RDP session as a startup item for the auto-login user. Not a bad solution but pretty hacky, even for my standards (plus it would need to shut-down the domain0 host when the VM shuts down).
All this and it’s still only for one of the PCs. You know what I’d like to do? Virtualise everything and stick them all on a central server. Then replace all the desktop machines with thin clients and auto-login-RDP settings. There’s a lot to be said for that – centralised backups, VM snapshotting, simplified (one-off-cost) hardware investment, but again there’s a caveat – I don’t think that I’d want to do that over powerline networking. I’d say a minimum requirement of 100MBps Ethernet, so networking infrastructure required, together with the new server. *sigh*.
I bet you’re thinking what has all this got to do with technology monoculture? Well, imagine the same setup without any Microsoft involved.
All the same existing hardware, Ubuntu on each, OpenOffice, Evolution Mail & Calendar or something like Egroupware perhaps or even Google Apps (docs/calendar/mail etc. – though that’s another rant for another day). No need for much in the way of hardware upgrades. No need for anything special in the way of networking. Virtualise anything which absolutely has to be kept, e.g. Sage, without enforcing a change to the Linux version.
I don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is that I don’t want to spend up to £450 (or whatever it adds up to for upgrade or OEM versions) just to move three PCs to Windows 7. Then again with Windows 8, 9, 10, 2020 FOREVER. It turns out you simply cannot do Microsoft on a shoestring. Once you buy in you’re stuck and people like Microsoft (and they’re not the only ones) have a license to print money, straight out of your pocket into their coffers.
Of course that’s not news to me, and it’s probably not news to you, but if you’re in a SME office like this and willing to embrace a change to OSS you can save hundreds if not thousands of pounds for pointless, unnecessary software. Obviously the bigger your working environment is, the quicker these costs escalate. The sooner you make the change, the sooner you start reducing costs.
Remind me to write about the state of IT in the UK education system some time. It’s like lighting a vast bonfire made of cash, only worse side-effects.