Linux on Australia’s desktops: Are the stars aligning again?


mini opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
16 October 2013
Image: trekkyandy, Creative Commons

The phrase “Linux desktop” has been anathema to Australian organisations for almost a decade, after a brief flurry of interest in the platform back in 2004. But a massive successful deployment at France’s national police force and the growing popularity of Software as a Service applications could put Tux back on the corporate radar.

If you were following Australia’s IT industry back in 2004, you would have seen article after article published speculating that a real challenger had finally arisen to call into question the near-monopolistic control which Microsoft has long enjoyed on corporate Australia’s desktop PCs.

At the time, the level of hype around the open source Linux operating system was in full bloom. Vendors such as Red Hat and SuSe were heavily pitching their products to local organisations, and internationally initiatives such as Ubuntu were finally starting to bring a level of user interface sophistication to an operating system which had historically been a little too raw around the edges for comfort.

And Australian IT managers and chief information officers were very willing to listen to the call of the penguin. Fuelled by the rising cost of Windows desktop licences and unwilling to be tied to one vendor the way they had been with relation to their telephone systems and many corporate applications, many local IT professionals were looking for an alternative to Redmond’s hegemony. Even if they didn’t actually end up using Linux on the desktop in their organisations, so the reasoning went, at the very least discussing the operating system would give them some leverage in their inevitable pricing discussions with Microsoft — a strategy which had proven remarkably successful overseas.

One of the most visible examples was Centrelink, which openly discussed the fact that it was investigating Linux as a potential desktop option for its massive corporate fleet located all around Australia. Earlier in 2003, Telstra also famously threatened to shift its massive desktop fleet to Linux, under the guidance of then-chief information officer Jeff Smith, now CIO at Suncorp. “Linux is an area that is just exploding,” Smith said at the time.

Some local companies even went so far as to actually deploy Linux in their corporate fleets, as crazy as that might sound, by today’s standards. National equipment hire company Kennards Hire shifted more than 400 desktops to Linux in November 2005, and wine company De Bortoli also successfully shifted its operations onto Linux around the same time. The movement eventually got so serious that the New South Wales Government stated in its whole of government desktop and PC purchasing documents in late 2006 that the ability to purchase Linux-based systems was “highly desirable”.

Many in the industry — particularly those commentators such as your writer who used Linux on their own desktop at the time — believed these moves were just the precursor to a wider adoption of Linux in corporate Australia.

After all, the reasoning went, there was little that Windows could offer that Linux couldn’t match. The open source operating system’s user interface was largely similar to that of Windows or Mac OS X anyway, there were alternatives such as to replace Microsoft Office with, and anything that couldn’t be directly run as a native application could be virtualised or emulated.

Of course, the switch to Linux never took off. As IT managers around Australia realised that it would prove harder than expected to uncouple their desktop operating systems from the Windows apps their staff relied on, and Microsoft proved a little more ‘flexible’ in its licensing terms, suddenly the Linux hype evaporated like Finnish ice on a hot day in Alice Springs. All that is history, now.

However, one does wonder whether some organisations around Australia might have started re-evaluating the Linux opportunity once again, in the wake of recent developments over the past year or so.

For starters, some of the major global organisations that did push through with their Linux adoption in the years following 2004 have found the move to be extraordinarily successful for them in ways they might not have initially expected.

Late last month, for instance, Wired published a lengthy story on the situation at France’s national police force, the National Gendarmerie, which is now running 37,000 desktop PCs with a custom version of Linux. By mid-2014, the agency aims to move all 72,000 of its desktop PCs to Linux.

Wired’s story appears to have been largely based on a case study the Gendarmerie published with the European Commission. And what a case study it is, containing a huge amount of praise by the French agency for the open source operating system.

The first claim the case study makes is financial. The agency was able, according to Major Stéphane Dumond from the French Home Office, to cut its total cost of ownership for its desktops by 40 percent between 2008 and 2014. This cut was based on the reduced cost of software licences, the ability of the agency to create smaller centralised teams to administer its fleet, and a “huge decrease of local technical interventions” (help desk support) by using Ubuntu.

However, according to Dumond, these savings were just the tip of the iceberg. More importantly in many ways, was the fact that the Gendarmerie was able to achieve what the public servant described as ‘independence’ from the commercial decisions of software vendors. All of a sudden, the agency had the capability of deploying new technologies under a controlled cost, as well as boosting IT governance within the organisation.

Now, at a certain level, it should be obvious that the experiences of the French National Gendarmerie are very different from what we see in Australia. In this case, many of the desktops that the agency was deploying only needed to access fairly basic services — not the dozens or even hundreds of applications which similar police agencies in Australia have installed.

However, on another level, it’s also true that there are large government agencies in Australia which do have similar requirements for locked down, highly controlled desktop PCs which run basic functionality as well as accessing legacy applications. Many of the apps used by law enforcement agencies such as police forces are severely outdated and are mainly accessed using terminal emulation software, easily run on Linux desktop PCs.

Then too, it’s also very clear right now that many government agencies in Australia, particularly in State Government, are really struggling to afford the cost of upgrading their desktop PC fleets. Dealing with Queensland’s Windows XP fleet alone would cost about $100 million on licensing fees. With those kinds of sums being thrown around, the case for investigating alternative options, especially in areas such as law enforcement, health and education, where most public servants work, becomes more viable.

The other factor influencing the desktop at the moment is the rapidly growing popularity of Software as a Service as an application deployment model. With virtually every major corporate software vendor jumping on the bandwagon and major vendors such as Oracle and SAP now actively deploying SaaS-based packages for major Australian government agencies through a browser and from a local datacentre, one has to wonder whether the need for desktop applications is decreasing as a sum total.

Between Microsoft’s Office 365, SaaS-based corporate applications from NetSuite,, Oracle, SAP and others, and with traditional legacy applications being ported in through terminal emulation, it seems likely that the actual operating system component of desktop PCs is becoming less and less important.

So far, in Australia, none of this has yet opened the door for desktop Linux to make a comeback. Instead, what we’re seeing is virtualised desktops and thin clients, as well as a shift to tablet computing in many areas. These technologies, once extremely marginalised, are rapidly making their way into the mainstream.

However, not everyone can afford this kind of sophisticated deployment, and for many organisations which don’t have sophisticated requirements but may have legacy applications, it feels right, at this time, for Linux to come back into the national discussion around desktop platforms. The level of enthusiasm in the open source community for the concept, after all, has never died down, and we still know plenty of people who run Linux as their main desktop at home, or perhaps to run their home server or media centre.

Will interest in Linux desktops enjoy a resurgence in Australia? It’s certainly possible, even if it does seem like a far-fetched theory at this point. But then again, it’s kind of hard to ignore a case study such as the French National Gendarmerie has just delivered. It’s tough to argue with a 40 percent reduction in TCO and a rollout that will encompass 72,000 machines. If nothing else, the sheer size of what has been accomplished bears a degree of consideration — especially for those who work in public sector IT in Australia, which is always desperately struggling along with never quite enough funding and freedom to get the job done.


  1. One of the hardest parts of any such move is the sheer number of Microsoft aficionados entrenched within large companies’ IT Departments. Many of them are in no hurry to move away from the Microsoft mothership, and why would they be? It’s been a gravy train for them for 20+ years.

    (Question: why do we so many Microsoft engineers in this company? Answer: to look after all the Microsoft servers. Question: why do we have all these Microsoft servers? Answer: because that’s where our skill set is!)

    The prospect of a smaller number of better-trained Linux engineers replacing them can’t be a very enticing prospect for an average Microsoft guy – and many of them are *very* average. For sure, there are good ones too, and the better ones will have seen which way the wind is blowing, and will be more than happy to re-skill. But there will still be some that will fight this kind of change for all they’re worth. Nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft is still the mantra.

    There is, however, the Windows 8 factor to consider. It’s a disaster for Microsoft, and I can’t see that Windows 8.1 has done anywhere near enough to fix it. When the time comes, companies will have to look at the pain and training costs involved with learning an entirely new interface (and one that precious few people seem to like much anyway) and yes, maybe then they will start to look seriously at alternatives such as Linux.

    That may be some years off yet, sadly. My own company has only just moved to Windows 7 (on shiny new Core i7 hardware with SSDs, yum, yum!), and like many others, they’ll be sticking with it for some time.

  2. Hi Renai,

    As you noted, we (De Bortoli Wines) have been successfully utilising Linux on the majority of our desktop fleet across Australia for an extended period of time (~10 years). Thought I would share some observations!

    The main change management lesson learnt was to focus on the applications first, not the desktop.

    Our process:
    * Make a long term plan
    * Research (we are always happy to discuss our experiences)
    * Migrate applications to either browser accessible or to cross-platform versions (or equivalents)
    * Avoid “IE only” applications! (luckily rare now)
    * Set corporate purchasing standards – make sure appropriate hardware has cross-platform support
    (eg the Dell Optiplex range can be ordered with Windows or Ubuntu, and Ricoh printers have good Linux driver support)
    * Plan for the inevitable legacy “Windows only” applications (eg the Wine “shim” project will successfully run many smaller Windows applications)
    * Focus the training on application migration (we see minimal training required for Linux desktops)
    * Develop a consistent look-and-feel across the Windows and Linux SOEs
    * Perform the rollout gradually
    * Devote resources to addressing “paper cuts”

    Frankly, with the rise and rise of (Linux based) Android, I am surprised Linux desktops are at all controversial. Oh well …

  3. We used Linux since the early noughties mainly because the decision was never going to be the sheep-like windows option. BTW, I love the reference to Microsoft aficionados above. Microsoft shills or apologists was the thought that struck me :)

    Linux allowed us to develop some pretty mean web-based and network applications (applications were apps before apps were apps) to manage production control systems, sequenced delivery systems, and traceability systems for warranty and repaired stock. The one time we were forced to use a windows application for warehousing, we spent more time and money ‘fixing’ it than we spent collectively on all the other, bigger systems.

    Linux gave us the freedom to apply open source technologies and develop some unique systems of our own. We developed in-house expertise as well as using external developers so I believe we had the best of both worlds. The reason we stuck with Macs on the desktop was usability and compatibility with shitty office software. Now that there are less reasons to maintain that compatibility and better Linux distress, Linux on the desktop is a real, low-cost and viable option.

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