Friday, 11 November 2016 02:31

From Windows to Linux: yes, that is still a thing

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A request from a bank to look at a switch from Windows to Linux has led to UK-based IT specialist Patrick Fitzgerald and his colleagues at British firm i-Layer developing a detailed method for an institution to make the transition.

Fitzgerald, who gave a talk about it at SUSECon 2016, has been in the IT business for a long time. He and his colleagues developed the methodology and associated tools after managing a large estate of teller systems for the Allied Irish Bank.

"The bank has 900 branches and 7500 teller workstations," Fitzgerald said. "After the move, just two people are needed to manage the lot." He added that the smallest branch had just two users, one teller and ran on bandwidth of 128k.

The bank initially called him in for advice and help when it experienced a shortage of trained staff.

Personal computers running Windows were like expensive pets, Fitzgerald pointed out. They were well-fed, groomed and expensive. They needed to be turned into cattle which had minimal maintenance, were easily replaced, managed without difficulty and productive.

pat fitzgerald big

Patrick Fitzgerald: change is not difficult.

Asking why transformation was needed, he said the desktop was changing. "The four little windows on the Windows logo stand for four applications, not Windows itself," he pointed out. "Corporate applications are migrating to server-based HTML5 versions. Legacy Windows apps have migrated to RDP versions. And Java apps don't care what operating system they run on."

Data was mostly on external sources and when organisations had the desire to extend the life of workstations and save money, Windows did not look very attractive, he added.

Fitzgerald said a major factor that had to be taken into account was user resistance. He said most PC users could not touch-type and while most Microsoft Office users did not know many functions of the application they would defend it to the death.

"Users hate change and resist it," he said, adding "but they love Facebook and they have learnt to use it no matter what its quirks. So, users can learn new things when they want to."

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The desktop design on Fitzgerald's own laptop.

When upgrade choices were being considered, he said one could look at Windows 10, in which case a hardware upgrade would be needed. One could look at a thin client, but again a hardware upgrade was needed. Then the option of switching to Apple could be considered but again there was a lot of expense on hardware.

"So, what about an in-place upgrade to Linux?" he asked. "Hard isn't it? No, it doesn't have to be."

He then showed off the desktop layout on his own laptop which runs SUSE Linux. "What is a better way to start your day?" he asked, pointing to the two choices of Windows 10 and his own desktop which had a Mac-style desktop design.

Fitzgerald pointed to the fact that the apps on his laptop were all grouped on a taskbar at the bottom of the screen and could be opened with a single mouse click, "much like you do with your smartphone".

And he asked why the same scenario could not be created on the corporate desktop.

In order to test the popularity of the solution he proposes, he said one would build an attractive user environment using SUSE Linux, make the elimination of user objections a goal, remove all local dependencies, move all user data to directories or the network, selectively mount user shares, create a functional /etc/skel for desktop customisations and prepare SSSD configurations to allow for rapidly rejoining domains.

Fitzgerald said the benefits of Linux were that one never encountered the infamous Windows blue screen of death, there was a reduced requirement for hardware upgrades, increased security, increased auditability and additionally one could use the Linux machines for other tasks after normal working hours, like running batch jobs using containers.

"It would considerably increase the working life of the hardware," he said.

Fitzgerald has developed a tool he calls Snoopea to automate most of the switchover. It uses unique identifying information about workstations to make them manageable, reloadable and groupable. Snoopea builds a profile to create a unique build for each workstation.

This tool takes care of the problems of network deployment, bandwidth usage and the fact that the average build runs to several gigs. It also adds updates and manages the bandwidth and takes into account the fact that at times one may have to function in disconnected mode.

The writer is attending SUSECon as a guest of the company.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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