Life after Win XP: another approach - Part 4

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In last week's third instalment of this series, I looked at ways you can deploy and manage FOSS solutions at an organisational scale, including support for legacy Windows XP applications. A great deal has changed since the heyday of XP - we now have to accommodate a broad range of other devices in addition to the desktop monoculture of yesteryear. Now, in addition to a FOSS ecosystem of desktops and laptops, you also have to contend with a resurgent Apple's sexy laptops; a pre-Cambrian-esque explosion of FOSS Android smartphones, tablets; Apple i-Devices; the odd Windows 8/8.1 desktop or notebook, and you might even spot the occasional Windows 8 phone or RT tablet. In this week's final instalment I look at coping with diversity in a FOSS environment.

Accommodating diversity with Samba

The "Bring Your Own Device" (BYOD) revolution suits FOSS-based ecosystems well and the Swiss Army Knife of inclusivity is called Samba (a play on SMB, Microsoft's proprietary "Server Message Block" protocol) - distributed with every Linux system.

The Samba project, which pre-dates Windows, was started in 1991 by an energetic PhD student (who coincidentally also co-developed the FOSS rsync algorithm now used under the bonnet by most backup software) at Canberra's Australian National University, because he was annoyed with problems using his MS DOS PC to read files from a UNIX server in his lab.

Today Samba 4 can fool any MS Windows-powered computer into thinking it's talking to a bona fide license-paid Microsoft Server. Samba allows a Linux server act as a domain controller, an Active Directory, network file and print server, name server, and other crucial "boiler room" network services. It also takes advantage of Apple's capitulation to Microsoft's dominance, adding Windows network integration to their Macs to spur enterprise adoption - Samba suits them just as well. Naturally, Linux desktops and laptops integrate with Samba.

On the mobile side, support is similarly comprehensive, with Android users spoiled for a choice of no-cost apps, similarly iOS (iPhone and iPad) users, but details are sketchy for Windows Phone 8 users although I expect that they should also be able to connect.

As with a Windows Server, although you can set it up yourself, you may want to engage an IT professional to set up Samba and configure it for your requirements.

Your own cloud, sync and all

One of the key features of modern computing environments is the synchronisation of key data - your email, contacts, calendars, task lists, bookmarks, passwords - between devices. Many users entrust much of that personal info to Google or Firefox for transfer between desktop and smartphone or tablet. For passwords, I prefer a specialised solution like Lastpass, which is compatible with all the FOSS technologies I use and stores all my web-related passwords in the cloud encrypted.

For storing and transferring files via the cloud, you can use a well known proprietary cloud service like DropBox among others. These services provide an easy way to securely share and automatically synchronise files across all manner of devices. But is that what you (and more importantly, your shareholders, customers, staff, etc.) want to do?

In these post-Snowden days for many the cloud, particularly that large proportion of it residing in the US, has justifiably lost much of its appeal - you can be assured that disturbing proportion of the big-name cloud services providers fail to live up to the IITP's very sensible "Cloud Computing Code of Practice". If you prefer to take charge of your own privacy, it's easy to make your own cloud - open source cloud storage systems like ownCloud and SeaFile offer many of the same capabilities as DropBox and Google's syncing services (as well as some others), but to and from your own server, either in your own office or on a leased server in a country without 5 Eyes or a Patriot Act.

Geographically distributed organisations

"Secure by design" should be the mantra for any IT infrastructure, but that's especially important for distributed organisations. There's no need to skimp on security in the FOSS world - all the tools are at your fingertips.

Most FOSS desktops support a few industrial strength Virtual Private Network (VPN) clients and servers out-of-the-box. We have often used the FOSS OpenVPN with great success on Windows, Mac, and Linux desktops. It also works well with all your mobile devices.

You (or your FOSS tech) can use OpenVPN to turn your multiple Local Area Networks (LANs) into a secure Wide Area Network (WAN), joined together via encrypted data "tunnels" across the Internet. OpenVPN also supports individual teleworkers who need to access organisational resources securely via any 'net connection.

Conclusion

FOSS is developed by the very communities that use, deploy and support it. Engineered by and with some of the biggest names in IT, the same value they build for their own use is available to anyone. It's industrial strength. Smart organisations can save license fees and gain competitive capabilities by adopting FOSS.

Migration to FOSS can be gradual, and needn't be all-or-nothing. With FOSS, you can embrace diversity, supporting a mix of FOSS desktops and devices alongside similar but proprietary solutions from Microsoft and Apple. The biggest advantage of migrating to Linux now is that you won't have to worry the next time locked-in customers next find themselves wringing their hands - you'll be busy just taking care of business.

I'll leave you with this illustration of history repeating: the city of Munich's decision to make the switch to FOSS when Microsoft abandoned Windows NT. Take comfort in knowing that their migration was almost certainly far more complicated than yours could ever be.

An edited version of this article also features on ComputerWorld NZ.

Updated 20 May 2014: removed reference to UbuntuOne as the service has been closed, and added reference to another excellent FOSS Dropbox alternative, SeaFile.

About the author: Dave Lane is a long-time FOSS exponent and developer. An ex-CRI research scientist and long-time FOSS development business owner he does software and business development and project management for FOSS development firm Catalyst IT. He volunteers with the NZ Open Source Society, currently in the role of president.