April 13th, 2007
Yesterday afternoon, we started our information meetings with employees about our Linux on the desktop project. We’re underway on our migration.
But before I talk about that, I need to back up and describe what the project is.
We are converting approximately 80% of our 150 or so PC users to Linux desktops. They’re Debian etch (4.0) running Gnome, Firefox (Iceweasel), Evolution, NFSv4, and SystemImager. Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll be writing about why we’re doing this, how we’re making it happen, things we’ve run into along the way, and the technology behind it.
Today I’d like to start with a high-level overview of the reasons we started investigating this option.
It became apparent that Vista was going to be a problem for us. Most of our desktop PCs are not very old, but Vista meant a significant degradation in performance from the Windows XP Pro that most people were running. A performance dip so significant, in fact, that it would have created a significant negative impact on employee productivity.
We tend to buy PCs with Windows licenses from the vendor (Windows preinstalled). As such, we knew it wouldn’t be long before XP-based machines would be hard to find. If we stuck with Windows, we’d be running a mixed-OS network — which we knew from experience we did NOT want to do. The other option would be to replace all those old PCs. The direct costs of doing that, with the associated Vista and Office licenses, would have been more than $200,000.
So we started to look at other options — changing the way we license Windows, sticking with XP for awhile, or switching away from Windows. This last option sounded the most promising.
I took a spare desktop-class machine, representative of the hardware most end users would have, and installed etch (then testing) on it. I spent a bit of time tweaking the desktop settings, making things as transparent to the user as possible. We liked what we saw and started pursuing it a bit more. We knew we had some Windows apps we couldn’t discard, so we tested running them off a Windows terminal server with the Linux rdesktop client. That worked well — and the appropriate Server 2003 licenses plus CALs would still be far cheaper than a mass migration to Vista.
To make a long story short, we are getting quite a few benefits out of all this. One of the most important is a single unified system image. Excepting a few files like /etc/fstab, every system gets a bit-for-bit identical installation from the server, updated using rsync. /home is mounted from the network using NFS (v4). So our users can sit down at any PC, log in, and have all their programs, settings, email, etc. available. A side benefit is that hardware problems become minor annoyances rather than major inconveniences; if your hard disk dies, we can just bring up a different PC. We had tried numerous times to make roaming profiles work in Windows, but never really achieved a reliable setup there — perhaps because it seemed virtually impossible to assure that each Windows PC had the exact same set of software, in the exact same versions, installed.
More to come.