May 18, 2007

OSS is the right solution for Voicelink Communications

Author: Peter Kaye

A chance encounter with a Linux-based laptop started South Carolina-based radio communications dealer Voicelink Communications on the path to replacing almost its entire range of Windows-based productivity and desktop software with free and open source software (FOSS).

After hiring Jim Lee last November to replace their previous field technician, Voicelink planned to provide him with a company laptop for on-site work. To get some jobs done prior to its arrival, Lee had to use his personal machine, on which he was running Debian. Vice President of Operations Anne Lakos noticed it and "fell in love with my desktop immediately," says Lee. "She loved the setup and how everything seemed so clean."

Lakos had never encountered FOSS before, but was intrigued. Lee's explanation of the system, including that he did not need to run a panoply of anti-virus and anti-malware programs, prompted a serious discussion on the benefits of FOSS in the workplace. The company had previously had no firm IT policy, but rather a collection of mismatched software built up over time. Lee described the situation as an "IT nightmare" that had become impossible to administer.

Lee says that "most of the software adoptions came about due to problems we encountered." Unable to deal with the deluge of email-borne malware designed to take advantage of Outlook, and due to Lakos' increasing concern with security, Mozilla Thunderbird replaced Outlook as the company's default mail client. Lee notes that "at the time, I did not recall any major security advisories for Thunderbird, whilst I could reel off half a dozen for Outlook and Outlook Express." Problems with Windows Software Activation prompted a switch to Ubuntu-based desktop machines; staff members have said that their old machines seem a little snappier under the new OS. Finally, with the move to Linux desktops, the company began using as the default office suite. The company now enjoys the benefits of the Open Document Format (ODF) standard internally. Lee says that cross-platform support for ODF was a significant draw for Voicelink and that some of their new customers are also using for similar reasons.

One of the more important benefits to Voicelink from the migration is that they no longer have to devote as many resources to licensing concerns. "It was just another business expense we could do without," Lee says. In addition, Lee is now spending substantially less time dealing with problem workstations and is free to administer the radio networks managed by the company. The only problems encountered during the migration process were related to user unfamiliarity with the new software. "I got a lot of questions regarding whether certain functions that the users were accustomed to even existed in their FOSS counterparts."

Voicelink Communications has not specifically adopted a policy of only using FOSS, and not all software the company runs is replaceable with FOSS alternatives. In particular, "certain proprietary radio programming applications" produced by Motorola presented some difficulty. Presently, Lee is running these on an old IBM ThinkPad with Windows 98 Second Edition installed, since the software calls on some extremely outdated system components. "I'm experimenting using those same applications under a Win98SE VMware image," Lee says.

Voicelink turned out to be an excellent candidate for transitioning to FOSS for several reasons. Firstly, it was not too deeply invested in proprietary, Windows-only software. Secondly, the vice president of marketing was prepared to back Lee's assertions regarding Linux due to his prior experience using the OS during university studies.

"I never came in thinking I was going to change things," Lee says. Nevertheless, the process he inadvertently started has resulted in the company implementing a range of open source solutions, and its employees are more productive because of it.


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