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

Tuesday, December 10, 2002  

Every two weeks I subject my staff to a "biweekly topic." The goal is to give them purpose when they have downtime in between meetings. Not just any goal will do -- the idea is to stretch their skills, make them learn something new that is beneficial both to the company and to them personally and/or professionally.

One of the goals that I've given to my staff is to research and open-source database solution, in this case MySQL. MySQL promises to deliver a transactional database for free. Free makes for an excellent return on investment if it is robust, reliable and easily managed. I spent some time today reading a couple of articles about the IT department in Largo, FL, and their investment in open-source. Whereas I believe my company will find more Open Source use in the data center, it appears Largo is making Open Source on the desktop a reality. Though I'm skeptical of zero-administration claims on the desktop (even with thin clients), it does offer some pause to see 1.3% of revenue spent on IT. That would be a reduction of over 80% of our current costs. Now I can afford to put those Boxsters on the lease schedule.

So where does the city of Largo wring out its IT expenses? From the article it appears they find savings in the centralization of software (and the use of thin clients), the use of open-source to avoid Microsoft's licensing fees whenever possible and a culture that allows for changes in desktop software suites.

Centralization in software with Largo begins with Citrix Metaframe on top of Windows 2000 Terminal Services. By using thin clients, all processing power is concentrated in their servers. Thin clients need just enough processing power to update the screen, keyboard and mouse. Desktop control and migration/replacement costs are reduced signifcantly, although Largo has to pay for the Citrix server and client licenses, as well as Terminal Services Client Access Licenses for each thin client. This wrings out about $500 per replaced desktop per year, compared to an organization that buys newer PC's to replace depreciated ones. I do like this idea and when coupled with the idea of virtual terminal servers (see my prior entries on server consolidation) may change the replacement cycle from once every three years to thin clients with a once every five year or more cycle, resulting in desktop equipment savings of 83% (assuming $1K per PC replacement and $500 per thin client, PC's are capitalized over 3 years, thin clients would be fully expensed in each year purchased).

By centralizing, Largo has put itself in a position to move end-users to a new centralized platform that obviates paying for Citrix and Microsoft licenses. Their solution is to use KDE on Linux and OpenOffice, an open-source alternative to the Microsoft Office suite. Avoiding Microsoft's Office XP licenses is about $300 per desktop, the Terminal Services CAL is another $65 and the Citrix Metaframe solution is probably $3K - $6K per server. In my company, we seem to have several vertical-market applications which only work under Windows (that pesky network effect). It would be difficult for us to switch to an all-Open Source thin client desktop system, although the Wine Project (Windows Emulator) has piqued my interest. This will become the heart of another biweekly topic.

Finally, the corporate culture in Largo is obviously very malleable when it comes to replacing desktop software. As a department manager I can only scratch my head in wonder -- I have learned often over the last six years that attempting to get end-users to learn new software or convincing them to switch software and lose existing functionality (especially calendars!) would bring forth shrieks of agony.

Is there truly a replacement for Outlook when it's become part of the corporate culture? What about the look and feel of Microsoft Office? Directory services? How difficult is it managing hundreds of users in a Linux environment? What about printing services (I've had some bad Linux printing experiences so far)? Locking down the desktop -- how easy/hard is it? Better than Group Policy Objects? Bottom line -- can the desktop experience be replaced with something else that does not inflict much pain on the end user and does not take away existing functionality while yielding a better bottom line?

posted by Henry Jenkins | 12/10/2002 09:59:00 PM

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