Whil Hentzen, of Hentzenwerke, won Microsoft's Most Valuable Programmer Award eight times and received Microsoft's 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award. Whil is now dumping Microsoft software and using open source software including Linux. Why would a Microsoft software expert change?
Whil is a FoxPro expert and for many years derived most of his income from developing applications using FoxPro. He then wrote about FoxPro and set up Hentzenwerke as a publishing company focused on FoxPro. Microsoft has dumped FoxPro in favour of .Net so Whil is dumping Microsoft.
There are several articles published about Whil's change to open source including the following:
NewsForge: Hentzenwerke Publishing switches to Linux
InformationWeek: Microsoft Proponent Moves To Linux
They all report common themes that I can verify from research with my customers. The rest of this article describes the problems and possible solutions. You can then decide if Whil's change is a change you want to make.
Blue Screen of Death
Windows is famous for it's "blue screen of death". Most other operating systems have an equivalent but rarely as colourful. One equivalent on Linux is the random reboot with a file system error when the system restarts. On Linux you can at least remove the file system error by replacing the old ext2 file system with a modern file system. In the Windows world, you used to be able to replace Windows with NT. NT is no longer available which makes Linux the next best upgrade for Windows users.
Whil says he is tired of NT's blue screen of death. NT inherits the blue screen of death along with a number of other Windows problems because Windows is tacked on top of NT much the same way as Apple tack their user interface on top of their version of Unix and Gnome tack their user interface on top of Linux.
I used to get blue screens of death in NT when I installed Internet Explorer on NT so I simply stopped installing Internet Explorer. Some manufacturers released Windows hardware drivers as NT drivers without understanding the difference. The hardware driver solution was to buy hardware from manufacturers with some experience in the field instead of the unbranded stuff sold at computer markets. The equivalent in Linux was the Mandrake (now Mandriva) CD drive disaster in which a programming error damaged CD drives.
NT 4.0 is used on millions of machines without problems. Certain applications from Microsoft reduce NT reliability to the level of Windows. If you downgrade NT to Windows 2000 you get some of that Windows unreliability built in to Windows 2000. Microsoft wants you to then downgrade Windows 2000 to XP where you get even more stupidity locked in to the operating system.
I chose Windows 2000 over Linux because I still need a couple of Windows based applications. Many of my customers made the same choice. We all had to move from NT to somewhere to get USB but Linux was not, at the time, a viable alternative. I am constantly delayed by errors built in to Windows 2000. Every 30 minutes Windows 2000 just stops for 30 seconds. Some of my customers have the same problem but are so used to random delays that they never notice this one.
I am happy to dump Windows 2000 now in favour of the latest Linux from Mandrake. Unfortunately I need compatibility with my customers and that means running some Windows only applications. My second machine runs Linux as a file and Web server. Most of my customers have a similar arrangement with the workers using Windows and most of the servers running Linux.
Whil chose Redhat Linux, which is the distribution used as the base for Mandrake. Redhat used to sell a user workstation oriented Linux but dropped it to concentrate on the server market (and now they are back with what looks like two different desktop distributions). Mandrake continues with a user workstation oriented Linux and depends in part on user subscriptions to a club. Most of my customers use Redhat, Mandrake, or Suse. Suse sell both workstation and server versions of their distribution.
Older versions of Linux reduce you use using a command line interface for configuration. Whil sounds like he is in the 2% of computer users who can use a command line interface and the 1% who are computer literate to the point where they understand a command line interface. That made Whil's move from NT to Linux practical. The rest of use are more likely to move to Windows 2000 then a recent Linux or to XP then a future distribution of Linux.
Whil's Web site mentions OpenOffice. OpenOffice is an open source application that replaces 90% of Microsoft's Office. Many people use 50% or less of Microsoft's Office so could easily switch to OpenOffice. Many Microsoft Office users use their computer only for Office, Web browsing, and email, which means they could switch to Linux, LibreOffice or OpenOffice, FireFox, and Thunderbird today. I can understand Whil encouraging people to convert at this level.
Many of my customers install OpenOffice along side Microsoft's Office just to use OpenOffice's export to PDF feature. It is far cheaper than installing a proprietary application.
OpenOffice is an example of ways you can save on licensing fees by moving from proprietary software to open source software on Windows. The move to open source also frees you to choose Linux at a later date.
The one thing many customers cannot get from OpenOffice is an equivalent to Microsoft's Access. Whil develops database driven applications using FoxPro. Customers using FoxPro do not need Access, which means they can move to OpenOffice far more easily than Access users. Whil's customer base is ideal for the move to Linux.
Whil is quoted as saying he will save $1,000 per year on support costs by replacing a proprietary email system with an open source equivalent. He does not say how much is the licensing fee, how much is for a service contract, and how much is for labour. I expect he does much of his own support so does not count the full labour cost.
My smaller customers, who use proprietary e-mail systems, pay about $3,000 per year in licence fees and $10,000 per year in other support costs. Hardware upgrades add about another $10,000 per year for hardware, installation costs, and all the work surrounding the hardware upgrade.
An open source option would remove the $3,000 licensing fee from their $23,000 per year cost but would add about $10,000 or more for the conversion, including all the time spent on training, backup, file conversions, testing, and changing documented procedures. That means they would not save anything until after the fourth year of operation.
There is a classic description of converting a live system.
It is like changing a tire on your car while driving along the highway. The Microsoft version is: "One hand to steer the car, one hand to change the tyre, and your remaining hand to dial Microsoft for an authorisation key." The Linux version used to be "All software modules, including all prerequisites, have prerequisites you have not yet downloaded." but fortunately current distributions are well tested and complete.
A Linux based open source email server would let them also replace their $3,000 per upgrade Microsoft operating system with the free Linux. If you replace the email system just before you need to buy an operating system upgrade, the previously quoted four year payback period would drop to three years. Whil's change makes more sense with a three year payback as many companies write off information technology projects over three years.
People costs are higher than software licence costs. Whil is unusually computer literate. Most people who manage servers have an extra level of experience with computers that makes a Windows to Linux server conversion easier than replacing desktop workstations.
When you next hire a person to work on your servers, you are likely to get someone who worked on Unix servers at university then completed a Microsoft Server certification course after university. That means you are building a team who can work with Unix and Linux as easily as Windows. The Unix is usually Solaris from Sun.
Microsoft's licence fees for server software is far greater than for workstations as you can get a workstation preloaded with Windows for about $10. Most hardware companies just preload Windows on workstations and do not offer a discount for a Windowless machine. Your best first step for saving money without increasing people costs is to replace a few Microsoft servers with Linux.
Currently MCSE level staff cost more than staff trained on Linux. If you are about to hire an extra person and set up a new server, that is the ideal time to choose Linux.
Some people give up on servers and buy application appliances instead. Application appliances are just servers with Linux and an application preinstalled. This is a great choice if you need a firewall but do not have anyone who knows Linux. Later on, when you accumulate Linux experience and you need an appliance upgrade, you can move to a standard Linux server based application.
PDF and HTML
Back in last century, many companies distributed documents as Microsoft Word documents. Now they are distributed as PDF documents or placed in HTML on a Web page with just the Web page URL distributed by email. Both PDF and HTML have made the Word document obsolete as a way of publishing information.
Word documents still survive as the medium of choice where you want the reader to update and return the document. OpenOffice replaces the Word document with an RTF based document. Last time I wrote a book for a publisher, we used Word documents as the medium of exchange and used all the Word revision marking features. Either RTF or OpenOffice did not support all the revision marking features. I have not tried the latest OpenOffice to see if it works with those features. Whil says " We've been using OOo to exchange documents for a couple of years now and it's been working fine. Revisions included. ".
RTF (Rich Text Format) is a 99% replacement for Microsoft's proprietary Word document format. Microsoft is dumping their proprietary format for a badly designed XML format. In the mean time, RTF is the substitute for both the old Word document and the eventual XML format.
RTF works as a substitute if you use RTF all the time. When you continually convert back and forth between Word and RTF, you lose a little bit of formatting each time. If you mix OpenOffice and Word, switch to RTF for shared documents and leave them as RTF all the time.
Fix the Applications First
File format problems are related to individual applications and application releases, not the underlying operating system. Fortunately many of the open source applications are available on Windows. You can convert individual applications before worrying about the conversion to Linux.
You can also ask other computer users to install OpenOffice and other open source cross platform products so they can share your files without having to resort to RTF or equivalent. There are no licensing restrictions to prevent you installing all the open applications on every computer you use. If every computer manufacturer automatically installed OpenOffice, Gimp, and a few other applications, open source usage would leap up over the next two years. Next time your company builds a SOE (Standard Operating Environment), include the open source alternatives. You will eventually save money.
Web Based Applications
Whil's customers are buying FoxPro based applications. FoxPro applications are a good replacement for Microsoft Access based applications. Many people are converting to Web based applications which makes the conversion to Linux even easier.
Web based applications can run on any operating system because all they need are a small number of open source applications. You need a Web server application, Apache is the first choice, and Apache runs on all the useful operating systems, which means you can use Apache on your current servers today. You need a database, MySQL is the first choice, and MySQL runs on all the useful operating systems, which means you can use MySQL on your current servers today. You need a Web scripting language, PHP is the first choice, and PHP runs on all the useful operating systems, which means you can use PHP on your current servers today.
The result can be accessed by any open source Web browser on any operating system. Mozilla and Thunderbird are good examples that run everywhere.
If you replace your current application with a Web based application, you can access the application anywhere in the world using any computer, no matter what the operating system. If you replace Microsoft's Outlook calendar with a Web based equivalent, you could check your calendar from an Internet cafe in the Maldives. Just think of the flexibility. You are in the Maldives for a week. You cannot scuba dive for 24 hours before flying back. What do you do? Go online to your Web based calendar and schedule lots of meetings so you can show off all those digital photographs of you lying in the sun on the boat after your last dive, pina colada in hand.
Your article makes it sound like I'm so Joe Expert, when I'm just a developer like a lot of other people...
There are 6,376,507,102 people on Earth. Subtract the 6 billion who do not have computers, the 300 million who do not understand their computers, the 70 million that understand their computer's power on button, the 6 million who program in Visual Basic then ask me for help with SQL, the 500,000 who are great programmers but only on one operating system, and you are left with the 7,102 who convert computers from one operating system to another. Now subtract the 7,000 who convert only Web servers from Windows to Linux. That leaves 102 who convert whole companies from Windows to Linux. I think Whil is in the expert class.
Most companies can move to some Linux use. Linux suits Whil Hentzen's customers. Changing Servers is an easier first step than changing the desktop. Microsoft Access and a small number of other applications stop most moves to Linux. People retraining costs make the move to Linux more expensive than an upgrade to Windows. You save the most money making the move to Linux as a replacement for another change, such as the upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows 2004 (this was supposed to be 2003 but looks like being 2005 or 2006). You can replace individual proprietary applications to open source applications without converting to Linux.