How to Run a Microsoft-Free Shop

Do you find that you're incapable of stopping upgrades? Do you spend much of your day patching security holes? Do you have a vague sense that you're spending too much money on software? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you may have become overly dependent on Microsoft. Here's a handy 12-step program to cure your condition.


We admitted we were powerless to manage our Microsoft software.

Many CIOs feel they are in a double bind with Microsoft products. The software itself seems always in need of security patches. The Windows 2000 server, for example, currently has 154 files available for download at, nearly half of which are security updates.

Windows XP makes things worse. The product's new subscription licensing model has raised the ire of many executives because they feel it forces them into frequent upgrades in order to get their money's worth. But in a recent CIO survey, a majority (65 percent) admitted they weren't considering any alternatives. "A lot of us will just cry foul but then pony up," says one CIO.


We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore our IT department to sanity.

Linux is that power. It is less expensive to acquire. It takes up less hard disk space and requires less memory to run. There is elegance in the open-source code license: You can have the source code for free, allowing you to upgrade or patch systems as you like. The only rule is that when you develop something new out of the source code, you must share that code with everyone else. Many developers believe this open-source model makes Linux inherently more secure than a proprietary operating system.

"We think we'll get blazing performance," says David Larsen, director of IS in Murray City, Utah, who's starting a migration to Linux desktops. "The other thing is, Linux is being taught in schools. It's getting easier to find skills. It's something whose time is coming."


We made a decision to turn our lives over to Linux as we understood Linux.

This is the hardest part of running a Microsoft-free shop: deciding to do it. Linux has a geek's reputation. At the same time, many executives have a crude interpretation of its value to corporations–"It's free, and therefore it's cheap." Slowly, that mentality is changing, but it's still true that there first must be a wholehearted and willing embrace of Linux as a legitimate enterprise replacement for Microsoft. This journey usually starts with a tech executive playing around. Maybe it's a Linux firewall on a home machine. Maybe it's a Linux desktop on an old Pentium that was collecting dust. But it starts at the top. A Microsoft-free IT shop cannot exist without the CIO reading up on and understanding the power of the alternatives.


We made a searching and fearless inventory of our network, applications, processes and business rules.

Do this, literally. Write down everything. A migration away from Microsoft requires very real proof that the move will make your business better. But you can't prove your case without a list of what's being replaced and why.


We admitted to ourselves–and to our CEO–the exact nature of our information systems' failings.

Victims of a hack or virus have likely already done this as a necessary step in the recovery process. To others, the major failing is this: They are locked into a Microsoft-dominated architecture that feeds them insecure, bloated code. Another failing is the needless codependencies of Microsoft products.

Perhaps the most expensive failing of CIOs' Microsoft-dominated IT shops is the upgrade cycle. "There's no other compelling reason to upgrade Office except to maintain compatibility with everyone else," says Larry Shutzberg, CIO of packaging maker Rock-Tenn in Atlanta.


We were entirely ready to have Linux remove all these defects.

If step 3 was "Decide to do it," then Step 6 is "No, really decide to do it." Psychologically preparing your company to create a Microsoft-free shop will require a complete rethinking of entrenched technology and business biases.

First, you have to plan a phased approach to taking Microsoft products offline.

This occurs application-by-application. Firewalls first.

Then mail servers. Then Web servers. Generally, the desktop OS–Microsoft's monopoly–is hardest to eschew, and so it comes last.


We humbly asked Linux to remove Windows, Apache to remove IIS, Evolution to remove Outlook, Netscape 6.1 to remove Internet Explorer and StarOffice to remove Office.

With the game plan in place, set up a "sandbox" in one corner of the enterprise–a couple of servers and desktops, and some other hardware for networking and firewalls. Here, the various Linux applications will be brought online, tested, tweaked and prepared for deployment throughout the network.


We made a list of all business units we harmed and became willing to make amends to all.

Prepare memos that list ways a particular application improves operations–whether it's saving disk space (Red Hat Linux distribution is about 25MB; Windows XP requires 2GB), memory, acquisition costs, or upgrade and maintenance costs. One CIO, though he thinks it's doubtful

He could migrate away from Microsoft, says a major benefit would be the time he'd take back for strategic planning. Right now, he wastes time figuring out how to proceed with nonstrategic products like Office.


We made direct amends to those business units (except when to do so would have gotten us fired).

Give them all of that freed-up disk space back. Return money saved on licensing (most Linux applications require a capital purchase and support, but little in the way of ongoing fees). At the film company DreamWorks, Ed Leonard has ported the entire graphics animation department to Linux; Shrek was created on a "renderfarm" (a powerful, refrigerator-size rack of servers) that had 800 processors running Linux. Leonard took the money he saved by not having maintenance contracts and used it to buy far more inexpensive Linux PCs. He says the money he has saved will allow DreamWorks to replace desktops and the renderfarm every two years instead of every five.


We continued to take inventory of the switch to Linux, and when we muffed it, we promptly admitted our error.

Now be brutally honest. If a conversion to Linux doesn't save money or improve the business, admit it in your analysis–and possibly stop the process. You're not doing this as a crusade. In many cases, honestly admitting it was an even swap will win more supporters than trying to fudge benefits that may not be there.


We prayed for knowledge of business goals and the power to carry them out.

Now you can put the documentation to work. Show what moving to a Microsoft-free shop can do. Turn all that data into a slick presentation created on StarOffice Impress. Michael Tiemaan, CTO of Linux vendor Red Hat, recently did such a presentation for a customer. The customer had done a high-volume transaction on a $2.5 million, 32-processor server using Windows applications. Even then, the transaction took two weeks to finish. Red Hat and the customer put together an alternative: 10 two-processor servers running Linux. All told, it cost $500,000. The transaction now completes in one day.


Having had a spiritual awakening, we vowed to carry this message to other IT shops and practice Microsoft-free computing in all our affairs.

Tiemaan arguably is in a position of power on this, but when he receives a document in a "proprietary data format"–that is, .doc, .ppt and so forth–he sends a courteous reply to the person asking her to resend the document in a nonproprietary format. Most of the time, this is a painless exchange, he says. "To run a Microsoft-free shop, you simply must be disciplined about it," Tiemaan says. "When I came here, I ditched my Windows system, and I haven't looked back."

By Scott Berinato, CIO Magazine, Jan 1, 2002

Share your attempts to run a Microsoft-free shop with Senior Writer Scott Berinato. E-mail him at

via eMail, Wed, 2 Jan 2002 12:43:58 -0600