November 16, 2009, 7:03 am
As the week began, I had the fortune to come across an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal that addressed the problem employees face all-too-often in the workplace: the hardware and software workers are required to use based on their company's IT policies is often out of date with the technology they can purchase and use at home as consumers.
The writer on the piece, Nick Wingfield, does a pretty good job summing up what many workers are running into out in the corporate world: highly restrictive storage limits on e-mail, obsolete search functions for corporate information, and PC machines that were top-of-the line when Windows XP first came out... eight years ago.
For anyone familiar with IT practices, this is a story that's become all too familiar. As consumers, we have the ability to buy the latest hardware (PC or mobile), incorporate the latest in software tools, and generally build outstanding home systems that are light-years ahead of what we use at work. Yet our corporate tools are supposed to be producing results that will better our employers' bottom lines. Why can't we get better tools?
I should pause here and mention that my own company's corporate policies are very progressive by the standards of this article. We can use whatever software we need to get the job done, and we have access to pretty high-end laptops and PC to do it. But, I must also disclose that all of us here at the Linux Foundation are computer-savvy enough that we can self-support our own machines and software.
Really, could you see Linus calling into a help desk with a question? A lot of organizations are not so blessed. Technical ability ranges from the highly skilled to the is-this-a-coffee-holder level of user. Couple this with a diverse variety of job functions that call for an equal variety of tools, and you can see why most corporate IT policies trend towards locking everything down. Keep it simple, and things are less likely to break.
As a former IT configuration manager, I get that. I really do. Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing about employees who install this cool new software they found on the Internet last weekend, and then wonder why their machines are compromised--if they are lucky enough to even find out.
Security is the most important aspect of an IT department's preventative functions. Between viruses, worms, and disgruntled employees, the very real possibility of losing valuable corporate data is a big part of why employees have few choices on the tools they can use--or have to jump through several hoops to get what they need.
A friend of mine is facing this at her workplace: constant e-mails from her IT department about clearing her inbox storage space out have prompted her to challenge her IT department as to why they can't use a solution like Gmail. She also has a Gmail account for a sideline business, and even with the large files she transfers and stores in that personal account, she tells me she is no where near her storage limit on Gmail.
But when confronting her IT department, they inform her that e-mail is not meant for file storage, that Gmail poses potential security problems, and migrating to such a solution is too costly. (Ironically, when she dutifully tries to use her personal or network drives for file storage as her IT team suggests, she runs out of space on her hard drive and gets e-mails from the same IT department that her alloted network space is getting too full.)
Cost, of course, is another consideration for business IT policies. It's expensive to buy licenses for all of that software, so buying additional software has to be looked at with a critical eye. And, if I were an IT manager and had just spent $XX,000s upgrading my proprietary e-mail server, why would I dump it for something else even the new solution were ultimately far less expensive?
We've heard this all before, but the Wingfield article does a good job framing it within a problem many of us faced: the growing disparity between the tools available to us as consumers versus as employees. A disparity made all the more apparent, according to the article, by the fact that more PCs are now being sold to consumers than business workers.
Ultimately, Linux and the rest of the free software pantheon provides the real solution for corporations. When software costs can be slashed to nearly nothing, and hardware costs can see a commensurate reduction thanks to less resources being used, Linux is by far the best operating system to break this cycle of forced obsolescence.
Security, too, is not such a concern with Linux. While no system is perfect, IT managers would have to worry about security a lot less in a Linux shop than a Windows workplace.
Wingfield doesn't directly mention Linux in his solution set, but the article's goal was not really to advocate any one particular brand of technology over another. The article did address the growing prevalence of virtual machines, which would very effectively segregate corporate tools and data. And as a virtual platform, Linux has very few peers.
Another interesting bit of info in the report: Kraft Foods Inc. has begun a program that lets its employees choose their own computers to use. But, Wingfield reports, "employees who choose Macs are expected to solve technical problems by consulting an online discussion group at Kraft, rather than going through the help desk, which deals mainly with Windows users."
This practice at Kraft raises an interesting possibility for Linux advocates. The formation of corporate Linux user groups (CLUGs) that would allow any workers interested in using cutting-edge technology to give Linux and/or other free software a try without diverting corporate resources towards training for and supporting the new tools.
If done properly, CLUGs could allow teams to cut software and support costs and very likely increase productivity, since workers would now have access to a much wider range of software than they might otherwise have under a traditionally restrictive corporate IT policy.