Switching to desktop Linux? 6 ways to ease the migration

Moving a business from Windows to desktop Linux can be scary for some. Here are some tricks for smoothing the transition.

With all the many compelling reasons for a company to switch to Linux on the desktop, it's no wonder that businesses large and small are increasingly relying on the free and open source operating system. After all, it's free, flexible, reliable, and highly secure -- to name just a few of the most attractive features.

No matter how good your reasons for switching from Windows to Linux, however, the fact remains that most of us don't like change. That -- more than anything else -- is why migrations of any kind can be painful.

One of the most common mistakes new desktop Linux users make is to give up too easily, often citing the frequently heard myth that "It's too hard." The truth, however, is that it's just different. It may be difficult to remember at this point, but Windows took some getting used to, too.

How can you make the desktop Linux migration process as easy as possible in your business? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Get Buy-In at the Top

This probably goes without saying, but executive buy-in is essential to business migrations of just about any kind. Users need to know that the change has been mandated from the top or they won't feel motivated to go along with it.

2. Choose the Right Distribution

Before the migration even begins, it's critical that you choose the right Linux distribution from among the many hundreds that are out there. As I've outlined before, this is primarily a question of the skills of your users, the focus of your business, your hardware and software needs, and the kind of support you hope to get.

Assuming your users haven't been on desktop Linux before, I'd be inclined to steer you toward either Ubuntu or Linux Mint, unless you have compelling reasons to do otherwise. To help convert real Windows aficionados, there's also Zorin OS, which is designed to mimic Microsoft's graphical user interface. You should definitely avoid some of the more expert-oriented distros such as Arch Linux or Slackware.

If you want a little extra online help in making your decision, check out the zegenie Studios Linux Distribution Chooser or polishlinux.org's distro chooser, both of which can be useful.3. Choose a Familiar Desktop

One of the nicest things about Linux is that it's so flexible and customizable, and that's particularly useful when it comes to introducing new users to the operating system. In addition to choosing your distribution carefully, I'd also encourage you at least to check out a few different desktop environments.

I outlined a few of these not long ago within the context of Ubuntu -- which has traditionally come with GNOME by default -- and there are many more. Pick one that seems relatively similar to what your users are familiar with.

4. Begin with Key Apps

Because so many of the apps your employees will likely need are cross-platform, one good hurdle to jump ahead of time is getting them used to any new key applications. If they're used to Internet Explorer, for example, you can start them on Firefox or Chrome while they're still on Windows.

If they've been using Microsoft Office, you can get them used to OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice ahead of time, too. That way, when it comes time to make the switch in operating systems, they'll have some familiar territory -- it won't all be new.

5. Remove the Pressure

Before you're aiming to make the switch, set up a Linux box in your office using the distribution, desktop and apps you've chosen. Make sure there are some games on there too, and offer it as an option for break time. There's nothing like no-pressure time with a new technology to make people open-minded and quick to learn.

6. Make a Cheat Sheet

Because the lion's share of any difficulty in switching to Linux is simply getting used to something different, it can be a real help for users if you give them a quick, post-training "cheat sheet" to remind them how to get at the tools they need once the switch is made.

It could be worded like, "Instead of... (Internet Explorer, for example) Use... (Firefox, say)." It could also outline the first few clicks to get users where they need to go. They'll probably be fine once they're in the applications they need -- more often than not, it will simply be the process of getting there that they need help remembering.

There are, of course, outside consultants and other resources that can be used to help with this kind of migration. There are even several books on Amazon (such as this one) dedicated to helping with the process. With a little preparation, training and thoughtful choice, however, pain really shouldn't be part of the picture.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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