From Digital Life
XAVIER School is demonstrating what most of us have long believed: an organization can safely dump Microsoft Windows and save millions of pesos by replacing it with Linux, a free and open source operating system.
The shift isn’t only about cost savings for the Jesuit-run school, which has developed a reputation as a high-quality preparatory school for college among affluent Chinese-Filipino families. It’s reflective of the progressive outlook at the 52-year-old school, which began upgrading its computer systems and network at the turn of the century.
“We began a massive upgrade in 2001,” recalls Pierre Tagle, IT consultant at Xavier. In that year, the school began replacing its aging co-axial cables with fiber-optic connections, upgraded its Internet access and started building up its inventory of new servers and personal computers.
“The school came up with a general guideline to see to it that computers used by our students are no more than 3 years old,” Tagle says. Under this arrangement, computers older than 3 years are moved to other departments, while the school buys 100 to 150 new PCs every year to replace them.
To save on licensing costs, the school signed a subscription deal with its Microsoft reseller in 2002, paying $40–or about P2,000—every year for every PC using MS Windows and MS Office. This continued until 2007, when a new reseller was assigned to the school.
“The new vendor insisted we were not compliant [with Microsoft’s licensing requirements] because we did not have base licenses to cover all our computers. This is something our old vendor never mentioned before,” Tagle says.
By this time, the school had about 800 computers, the majority of which were running Windows. Xavier also had about 150 Macs and Linux computers, while its core servers were dominated by CentOS and other variants of Linux.
The new requirement meant the school would have to buy 500 to 600 base licenses to cover all of its Windows PCs, old and new alike, at a cost of P1 million to P1.2 million. It also meant it would have to buy base licenses for the 100 to 150 new PCs it was buying every year—or an extra yearly expense of P200,000 to P300,000. On top of this, the school would still need to pay for its subscription, at $40 a PC a year, to cover the use of Windows and Office—another P1.2 million a year.
To make matters worse, the P2,000 base license was for a crippled version of the Windows operating system that the school was never going to use, because the software it did use was already covered by its subscription license.
“Every year, we would have to buy something we would never install, simply because we needed to get the sticker from this package and stick it on every PC that runs Windows,” Tagle says.
When management saw these costs, it became more receptive to the open source alternative.
The school’s IT team needed even less convincing, since many of them were accustomed to Mac OS X, which like Linux, is based on Unix. The large-scale deployment of Ubuntu 8.04—chosen because of its ease of use as a desktop operating system—began in April.
When the teachers came back from summer break in May, they were briefed on the coming change and a series of orientation sessions were set. The target was ambitious: reformat almost all of the 500 to 600 Windows PCs and install Ubuntu Linux on them, and train the faculty and staff in the new software—all in time for the new school year in June.
The short transition period led to some problems initially.
“Obviously there were a lot of adjustments. In the first month, we had a lot of complaints simply because people didn’t know how to use the new software. We had seminars, but not everyone attended them, and we had a few hold-outs among the older faculty, so we had to retain some Windows licenses,” Tagle says. “But by the third month, it became very quiet and there are very few issues in Ubuntu.”
Some applications, such as the grading system, were developed in FoxPro and Visual Basic and are being moved to a Web-enabled server-based system.
Advice for other companies considering a similar migration: inventory all your applications before you start, Tagle says.
“Not everyone was reporting what they were using, so there were some applications that would not run—though some of them will work with Wine,” Tagle says, referring to free software that can execute some Windows programs in Linux.
Also be prepared to deal with older hardware that may not work properly without the right Linux software drivers.
If there are many variants of computers in use, this can also complicate a mass roll-out.
Finally, leave enough time for training and be prepared for the inevitable adjustments.
“Always expect resistance, and know how to handle it,” Tagle says.
There are lessons here for Microsoft and other vendors, too, about taking care of your customers. One reason Xavier dumped Windows was the lack of help they got from the previous reseller when they wanted to create a single log-in system that would incorporate the Macs.
“We had 150 Macs, in addition to another 150 Macbooks used by faculty members, so a single log-in was not a trivial request to accommodate a few units sitting in one corner,” Tagle says.
“But we did not get much help from them, not even a proposal after we discussed what we needed. We wanted to work with them as they were Xavier’s reseller for many years, but all the account manager seemed interested in was the renewal of our subscription licenses.”
Today, most of the school’s servers run on CentOS or Red Hat Linux, which is needed to obtain IBM support for Lotus Notes. The school also has 45 Asus Eee PCs—running Linux, of course—as part of its mobile lab project.
Only seven months old, Xavier School’s migration to open source is still a work in progress, but it’s already paying dividends. Aside from the huge savings in software licenses, the system has also become more reliable. Tagle observes, almost dryly: “There are much fewer issues about PCs hanging or viruses in Ubuntu.”