December 13, 2007

Integrating Ubuntu with a Windows-based network is harder than it should be

Author: Tom Chance

I've been using and advocating free software for around six years. When studying and then working as a freelance writer, migrating an office seemed so simple -- draw up a list of comparable programs and, over a reasonable period, move your staff across. But over the past few weeks I've been trying to use Ubuntu Gutsy on my desktop PC in a Windows-based office, and whilst most things work just fine, it's far from the seamless integration I was hoping for.

I work for an environmental charity in London, and our office is pretty typical of the sector. Two Windows 2003 servers provide Exchange for email, calendaring, and contacts, along with some shared folders and printers, a PPTP VPN for remote work, and a VoIP phone solution called IP Office. On the desktops we use the typical software titles: Windows XP, Office 2002/3, some of the Adobe Suite (Acrobat Reader and Professional, Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver), Sage, and a handful of other programs.

Part of my job involves managing the IT contracts, and I'm working on a process to develop a decent medium-term ICT strategy. When I've had a (rare) spare moment, I've been looking at options for migrating to free software. I recently completed a TCO analysis of our ICT systems, and found that licensing accounts for 18% of our ICT expenditure. The biggest expenses are hardware and support. If we were to migrate to free software, support costs would initially rise and training costs would be introduced, so I'm keen to find out the reality of migrating firsthand.

Installing Ubuntu Gutsy was easy, but getting it to play with the Windows 2003 login server was really difficult. In Windows XP you just go into the system properties, enter the domain that the servers use, and authenticate against it. You can then log in with your network username and password -- easy. In Ubuntu you have to follow this guide, which is far from easy, and I've struggled to make it work consistently. I've read that Novell Linux Desktop follows the documented procedure with the installer, but I'm not in a position to pay for a copy of that distribution, and I'm disappointed that there don't seem to be any tools for Ubuntu to make this easier.

Once set up, I've enjoyed using GNOME. I used to be quite involved with the KDE Project, and it's still my environment of choice, but the GNOME desktop feels more integrated in some ways. I especially like the Places menu at the top of the screen; I added the shared folders on the server and our remote Web site server as places, and they appeared in not only that menu, but also Nautilus and other applications. It may be subjective, but some things just feel more solid and well-designed than either KDE or Windows. Colleagues leaning over my shoulder have commented on how nice and easy to use it all looks.

Navigating the shared folders works pretty seamlessly. I can browse the network and add any folders to Places. Unfortunately I can't view or modify the file security settings, so I have to open a remote connection to the server using GNOME's rdesktop client to change permissions!

One of my most common tasks is working with Microsoft Office documents. is perfectly adequate for most tasks. I miss some functionality, such as the "keep text formatting" option when you paste text into a document or spreadsheet. In the chart component, you can't currently display both the number value and percentage for each section of a pie chart, which is a pain. I also haven't noticed any document locking features, as in "this file is read-only while Angela edits it." Finally, the layout and formatting isn't spot on, which forces me to spend time fiddling with other people's documents before I can use them. On the bright side, when creating a form in Writer, I really appreciated the excellent PDF export functionality, which produces a PDF document with a working form. I'd otherwise have to buy a charity license for Adobe Acrobat Professional for that simple feature.

The other black hole for an office worker's time is email. Evolution can work with Microsoft Exchange using the Outlook Web Access feature (basically webmail) as a sort of proxy. I had to fiddle and retry the configuration a few times to get it to play smoothly, but email now works fine. My calendar shows up too and I can subscribe to other users' calendars, though displaying their contents is sluggish; it sometimes takes 10 seconds just to show a day's appointments. We have some shared calendars in the public folders, but I can see them only if I've already made them a favourite from Outlook in Windows. When I accidentally removed one from my profile, I had to log in to a Windows machine to put it back in place.

Contacts in Evolution worked OK, but I found some strange glitches. For some reason it has mixed-up names and email addresses, so sometimes I send something to a colleague but the autocomplete feature has his name next to another Jonathan's email address. When I go to look at the address book, Exchange's Global Address List is initially empty, and only fills up with entries when I start typing a name, whereupon it autocompletes matching entries in the list.

Another irritation with Evolution is that it doesn't understand links to files in a Windows format (bug report). We always send links in our office rather than attaching files, so now I have to read from the link and manually navigate to the folder in Nautilus, rather than just clicking and having the folder or file open. Worse, when I want to send out an email message with a link to a file, I have to copy in and then rework the Nautilus URL to make it look like a Windows URL; in Microsoft Office I just add the Web toolbar, copy the address, and paste it straight into the email body.

Printing should be simple, and to somebody with experience I'm sure it is. We have an OKI ES1624 and an Infotec ISC2525 -- both standard office laser printers shared via a Windows server. When I went to add the two network printers under GNOME, I had to manually enter the Windows server share names for each, which meant checking their properties on the servers. When the installation procedure asked for a driver I couldn't find the printers in the list. After several abortive attempts with generic PostScript drivers, I found a hint in a Web forum that I could print out a settings page from the printer with a list of languages it understands. I now have both printers working with the generic PCL 5c driver, which is functional but missing lots of the options that the Windows driver gives you. In Windows XP you just go through a wizard that makes finding, adding, and using the driver straightforward.

Finally, some things haven't worked at all. We use PhoneManager, a desktop utility that brings all the power of our VoIP phone system to your desktop, but it doesn't run at all with Wine. And when at home, try as I might I just couldn't get the VPN to work; it simply stops without any useful indication of the problem before it has made the connection.

Overall, I managed to get most things working, certainly enough for my day-to-day work. But it would probably take me the best part of an afternoon to set up a new PC for a colleague to use Ubuntu, whilst it takes me about 30 minutes with a computer that has Windows XP pre-installed.

I don't mean to sound excessively negative. Ubuntu is much nicer than Windows in many ways -- the feel of the desktop, the built-in functionality, the available software through APT, the ease of working with certain aspects of the Windows office environment I'm in. Free software is also extremely important to me, and of considerable interest to my organisation.

But the integration just isn't as slick and easy as I had hoped. With each step I have had to spend more time messing around with settings, or just working around missing functionality, than I do in Windows XP. I'm sure some of my stumbling blocks have answers, but they weren't there by default, nor easy for me to find. This poses a problem for my organization: the only way to make a migration really work would be to switch the servers first to eliminate compatibility issues, and then to do a really comprehensive refit of the desktops with lots of retraining. This is certainly a possibility, but with the constraints of a charity IT budget (where funding for long-term investments is difficult to come by, and where software licensing is relatively cheap) it's going to take considerable political will from management to justify a wholesale migration.


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