Modern Middle Manager
Primarily my musings on the practical application of technology and management principles at a financial services company.

Saturday, December 21, 2002  

I came across that word while reading some Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) articles on This led me to a few other articles on TCO published by Paul Murphy, spearheaded by this one. Defenestration means to throw out a window, in this case the pun is that Windows is being thrown out. It's Mr. Murphy's contention that most Unix-based infrastructures are "smarter" and therefore cheaper than Windows. Let's examine some of his conclusions and see if they make sense, as well as how they might be implemented at my organization.

1. Using smart displays/thin clients rather than desktop PC's eliminates the help desk.
2. Unix/Linux unifies an entire organization while Windows fragments it.
3. Unix/Linux frees the IT department to strategic issues while Windows forces IT to be a firefighting group.

Point #1 is that creating a Unix/Linux environment with smart displays/thin clients prys desktop control from the user and gives it back to the IT department. Using my own experience as a guide, I agree with this point. The end-users spend a lot of time playing with their backgrounds, screen savers, installing ActiveX controls to play casino games online, etc. While I understand that some settings should be customizable (screen resolution, for example) I don't believe that an end-user should be decorating their PC like their home. I also agree that thin clients without any moving parts like hard drives will last longer and probably have fewer failures (and a longer mean time between upgrades) than the average desktop PC. However, thin-clients can be run in both Windows and Linux environments, bringing us to point #2.

Point #2 posits that Windows fragments an organization while Unix/Linux unifies it. Fragmentation occurs for two reasons -- because end-users see their equipment as a personal power tool and have no qualms about customizing it to their heart's content and because Windows itself is so complex and unreliable at both the server and desktop level that it forces an organization to lock it down and police its usage. I would go further and mention that the "DLL Hell" all IT departments know and love also forces an organization to proliferate servers, creating a "one application, one server" environment that obviously drives up TCO as it drives up hardware and software costs. I am in absolute agreement with this. The Windows platform is inherently complex, unsecure and unstable if used for more than one or two purposes. The desktops are painful to manage and wresting control of the desktop away from the end-users involves a great deal of hassle, although Windows 2000 made it easier with Group Policy Objects.

The solution, according to the article, is Unix/Linux because the "inherent stability of the system [allows the CIO] to create a trust relationship with the user community." Unix/Linux "from a purely practical perspective...simply makes collaboration easier and cheaper." Long on rhetoric but short on details, I'm afraid. I have managed Unix systems on and off for 12 years and Linux started making its way in my organization over the past year, to my delight. While I will agree that our Linux systems seem very stable, the complexity of the applications running on them is minimal at this time. As we grow, I will be better able to judge that statement. The other statement, that Unix "...simply makes collaboration easier and cheaper" is hardly self-evident. Cheaper and easier than...NetMeeting? Webex? Exchange?

I can see the truth of the fragmentation argument regarding desktop PC's everywhere running programs locally. However, what makes Unix/Linux better than a thin-client Windows 2000 environment? It strikes me that centralizing desktop resources solves this problem. The article's sidebar confirms that.

Point #3 is that IT fights disasters constantly with a Windows infrastructure while Unix/Linux infrastructures are so reliable that IT can "focus on revenue generation and longer-term strategic issues." This means that a Windows-based IT department is "condemned to the role of cost sink, always spending monies earned by others" while a Unix/Linux-based IT department is "an organizational asset."

Ahem. Whereas point #2 involved some rhetoric, this point starts out well and ends up sounding like a cliche ("Neurotics build castles in the sky, psychotics live in them"). Unless IT is billing out its services, all IT is a cost sink. Other than this rhetorical excess, the rest of the point is on target. If your IT organization spends most of its time fighting fires, it will never be able to focus on aligning itself to management's strategic vision. Duh. Windows servers DO have problems with stability when taxed beyond the one-application, one-server model. Duh again. Windows desktops are probably the single greatest waste of time in an organization. Three duhs for Windows. However, the implication is that "Windows is automatically bad" and that "Unix/Linux is automatically good because it's not Windows."

Desktops are indeed a massive point of failure in so many ways in organizations. I believe that getting rid of them in favor of thin clients is a great way to go. As I've mentioned in previous posts, though, replacing the server infrastructure would be a little more difficult. While the Linux/Apache/PostgreSQL/PHP alternative looks good for in-house development, what replaces Exchange and Rightfax? How about Sharepoint Portal Server? Active Directory -- where is the Unix/Linux equivalent? What about an existing Customer Relationship Management app that's integrated with Microsoft SQL Server? I don't see a forklift upgrade in our future. However, we have reduced downtime and fires by pursuing a virtual server and one-app per server environment. And that frees us up for more strategic pursuits.

posted by Henry Jenkins | 12/21/2002 02:19:00 PM

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