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Penguins Old, Penguins New, Penguins Battered and Penguins Blue

By Katherine Noyes
Oct 4, 2010 5:00 AM PT

It's hard not to feel good about the world when not one but two exciting events featuring penguins make the news in a single week.

Penguins Old, Penguins New, Penguins Battered and Penguins Blue

Yes, you heard that right!

First, it was the unveiling of the Russian monument to Linux featuring none other than Tux, our favorite penguin of all.

Then, in what appears to be an eerie coincidence -- Linux Girl is not making this up -- scientists uncovered evidence of a never-before-discovered Giant Prehistoric Penguin!

Now *that's* news!

The ancient creature apparently sported touches of red in its plumage, too, which adds some sort of weird cosmic logic to Ubuntu 10.10's default wallpaper.

Go figure!

Sorrow in Solothurn

Anyhoo, moving right along, it was a darn good thing those frisky little landlubbers were on hand to provide some lighthearted distraction in recent days, because elsewhere in the land of Linux, the news wasn't so good.

Switzerland, that is -- specifically, the canton of Solothurn, which recently aborted a 9-year-old plan to migrate its computers to Linux, and is now planning to put them all on Windows 7 instead.

Could there be a more disheartening story?

The project's afflictions included implementation delays, immature software and "disgruntled employees whose displeasure allegedly culminated in the creation of a home page dedicated to venting their gripes and who were so busy grappling with Linux that they no longer managed to do their jobs," explains a special report in The H.

'Penguin Trouble'

Not only that, but "a number of custom applications couldn't readily be replaced with Linux solutions," and "there were problems with the Konsul database Solothurn uses for processing government council decisions," the report notes.

Local press reports, meanwhile, featured headlines including, "More trouble with the penguin."

Bottom line: "Desktop computers will apparently be migrated to Windows 7 in 2011, and Outlook will replace the Scalix web mail client."


'They Did Things Bassbackwards'

Were Linux bloggers mum on the topic? Er, can penguins fly?

"Sounds like they did things bassbackwards," opined Slashdot blogger commodore64_love, for example.

"When migrating to Linux, it should be a two step process: Switch to all open-source apps (OpenOffice, Firefox, etc) while still using the familiar Windows environment; then switch to open-source a year or two later, while still keeping the same apps," commodore64_love explained. "Step 1 is where the real cost savings come from (imho)."

Similarly: "They seem to have hired a bunch of incompetent nincompoops to oversee the migration, so they failed to prepare, failed to even have a real roadmap, and failed to have critical modules ready to come online when required," wrote Runaway1956. "This looks more like an indictment of the tech people than of Linux."

Of course, "now they'll have a new project manager along with the new software, and people will mistakenly think that it's the new software that solved the problems... ," lamented Darinbob.

All in all, a miserable situation. Linux Girl took to the blogosphere's seedy Broken Windows lounge for some liquid comfort.

'Why Tolerate Insubordination?'

"It's clear the migration to GNU /Linux had lots of problems, but it's not clear the status," noted blogger Robert Pogson, referring to a different report that suggests FOSS might still be part of Solothurn's plan.

"The translations of German documents by Google are not clean enough for me to judge, but there are reports that 70 percent of desktops have migrated, so it seems a bit late to abort," Pogson pointed out. "It seems the technical problems are few and a minority of users are resisting change."

The canton, in fact, "should fire those and hire more flexible people," Pogson suggested. "Seriously, why would an employer tolerate insubordination? There are thousands of people ready, willing and able to work with GNU/Linux.

"If GNU/Linux gives the canton the efficiency and performance it needs, why should employees be allowed to say, 'No'?" he added. "That would not be tolerated in any place where I have worked."

At Pogson's current employer, "we brought in GNU/Linux with little fanfare, just swapping it for dead/dying XP machines, and there has been no fuss at all," he noted. "Why are the canton's employees different -- or is that just hype by the media to sell papers?"

'Moving to Linux Is Very Disruptive'

Indeed, "it really sounds like they did that conversion backwards," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack said. "You can hardly call it Linux's fault if you didn't make sure your custom applications are able to handle Linux before you started."

Migration is difficult, and "done right it is very slow," Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told Linux Girl. "We shouldn't be surprised that there are failures here."

The basic problem is that "moving from Windows to Linux is very disruptive," he opined. "The two systems do not behave the same on a network, they have different strengths and weaknesses, etc."

Moving from Windows to Linux takes more than commitment, in fact -- "it takes understanding both systems well and how to rethink the network in the event of such a move," Travers added. "I usually tell people that successful migrations are done slowly over five to seven years, and that anything faster than that is always very painful."

Even on that timeframe, however, "it isn't a sure thing," he warned. "It takes skill, attention and listening to make it work."

'It Is the Apps'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet focused more on the technology itself.

"It is not the OS, it is the apps," he asserted. "Nobody 'runs' Windows -- they run MS Office, Quicken/Quickbooks, Photoshop, Sony Vegas, Cubase, etc. The simple fact is many of the apps required for a successful business are Windows-only and have NO equivalent in Linux."

In OpenOffice.org, for example, "Writer is good, but the rest isn't frankly up to MS Office 2K standards," he opined.

"If Linux is to have ANY shot in business, the anti-proprietary attitude has to go," hairyfeet concluded. "Most companies will NOT give you their code, full stop. It isn't gonna happen, period. Which means you need to make it simple for them to support Linux."

'Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory'

Then there's the cost of "replacing all those apps, replacing or retraining all those workers, hiring Linux system admins and finally dealing with all the 'fun' of having to buy workstation-class hardware even for the secretaries just to get Linux hardware compatibility," hairyfeet added. "That quickly makes 'free as in beer' the more expensive proposal, as the Swiss found out."

Regardless of one's view on those questions, however, it's clear that "we learn more from our failures than our successes," as Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site, pointed out.

"This was a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and no amount of excuse-making will change that," she noted. "Still, history is great, if only because it helps us recognize our mistakes when we repeat them."

'Not-So-Easy Lessons'

Three "not-so-easy lessons" can be taken away from the Solothurn story, Hudson suggested:

Problem #1: "There will always be a significant minority that will resist any change."

Lesson #1: "Plan for resistance, and be ready to modify plans accordingly. Giving up a little early on can mean not losing everything later. No battle plan survives the first engagement intact."

Problem #2: "Trying to change from one computer monoculture to another ignores practicalities."

Lesson #2: "Be practical. Save ideology for church on Sunday or discussing politics at the family reunion."

Problem #3: "Nothing was ready on time, and a lot didn't work as promised."

Lesson #3: "Don't over-promise, don't over-sell. You're not the 800-pound monkey -- you can't sell vaporware and then fling poo at your customers and hope some of it sticks."

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