Corporate desktops and Ubuntu

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Good news for people with skills deploying and managing Ubuntu: the corporate desktop is being reinvented, and Ubuntu is a popular option for those leading the change.

In the past year there’s been a notable shift in the way IT shops think about their corporate desktops. Suddenly, Windows is optional, or at least it can be managed and delivered as a service to any other platform, so it no longer has to BE the platform on the client. In part, that’s because so much has moved to the web, and in part it’s because virtualisation has become so good at letting people deliver desktop apps (and whole desktops) over the network. It’s also a function of the success of other non-Windows platforms, like iOS, which make IT think in terms of standards for interoperability rather than standard applications.

All of this is drumming up interest in alternative ways to design large scale desktop infrastructure, from Linux-based thin clients (Ubuntu is at the heart of some recent products from Wyse) on alternative architectures like ARM to straightforward Ubuntu desktops with thin client software giving access to legacy Windows applications. In all these cases, Windows and proprietary software continue to play an important role, but the stranglehold of Windows on the platform itself seems to be coming unstuck. That makes for a much enhanced competitive landscape.

A migration from Windows to Ubuntu is still a project that requires a lot of planning, analysis and hard work. But for most institutions, it’s realistic to be confident that 10-25% of the desktops can migrate smoothly if a professional team has that as their mission over a year or two. For large organisations, that might be 5,000-50,000 seats, and the resulting savings are tremendous given the increase in Windows licensing costs driven by Win 7.

I joined a call recently with the team at Canonical that works with customers to plan and deliver desktop migrations to Ubuntu. They have a standard engagement process that charts a course for the organisation and maps out typical risks and low-hanging fruit. They were talking to a bank, traditionally a very conservative audience, about the stages and milestones in a typical migration of 20,000 seats to Ubuntu. I was struck by the tone of the conversation on both sides – it wasn’t a question of whether to do it, it was a question of how to do so most efficiently. And that’s a huge leap forward from the days when we used to speculate if it was sane to even think about Linux on the desktop for anybody other than a developer.

It’s clear that Windows is no longer the target – personal computing and productivity computing are in the process of being reinvented, and being an effective replacement for Windows is no guarantee of relevance in the future. But for many IT departments, the desktop represents an enormous cost base which will not disappear overnight, and Ubuntu is creating options for them to control that cost.

We often celebrate the way free software transforms the lives of those most in need, but it’s equally energising to see it making a difference to IT teams that in turn help inject resources into the acceleration of the free software platform. Winning 20,000 desktops to Ubuntu helps improve the platform for every school or university deployment, just as much as it helps improve the platform for developers and home users too.