Do you depend on your computer for your living? If so, I’m sure you’ve thought long and hard about which hardware and software to use. I’d like to explain why I use generic “white boxes” running open source software. These give me a platform I rely on for 100% availability. They also provide a low-cost solution with excellent security and privacy.
People’s requirements vary, so what I use may not be the best choice
for you. I’m a support
databases and operating systems. I also do consulting that
involves research, presenting, and writing. I use my own computers and
work from home. This article is about desktops and laptops, not
I need 100% system availability. If I don’t have a functioning
at all times, I can’t do my job. I’m unhappily “on vacation” if
I’m fixing my computers. My solution is to use only
hardware I can fix or replace immediately.
One could adopt other strategies to meet these strigent hardware
requirements. Some pay more for higher quality equipment, betting that
results in fewer failures. Some rely on vendors for support. They
select a responsive company with a good reputation for service.
Knowledgable help is vital. Many prefer local support staff who are
easily accessible. Thom Holwerda wrote an excellent
article explaining why he picks iMacs for high availability.
I take a different approach. I use generic white boxes with all stock
parts. Since computers are inexpensive I keep several on hand, along
with extra parts. It’s easy to swap parts if
necessary. PCs are highly standardized — if you acquire them with an
eye to non-proprietary components. I open up and inspect every machine
before I use it. (Watch it
Some vendors will mold their DVD drives to non-standard
shapes or add proprietary plastic you have to
fit on your hard disk to properly connect it.)
For my self-service approach to work, you have to know how to perform
basic hardware problem
identification. You don’t need to be hardware-trained. I’m
not. The key is to be able to quickly identify common problems,
hardware fixes are easy with a replacement
strategy. A good problem ID
procedure and a few rules of thumb are all you need. (I’ll share mine
in another article if people are interested.)
If a hardware problem requires more than a few minutes, use a backup
computer. Once this was prohibitively expensive. Today cheap generic
boxes make it feasible. Another change from years past is that you no
longer need current hardware to run current software. I run
resource-heavy apps like enterprise DBMS and website
generators with a
gig of memory and a low-end dual core processor. That’s a five year old
machine. You can get a fleet of them for the cost of one hot new gaming
Critical to my approach is that you keep your work — your data —
portable. Back it up
and move it between machines with a USB memory stick. Don’t ever get in
situation where your data resides only on a single machine. Same with
software. If you depend on certain applications for your work, ensure
they’re available on more than one machine.
To do this just copy data directories or entire partitions
between computers. If you
need a certain application or configuration for your work, copy it. If
a USB memory stick isn’t big
enough to hold your copies, use a USB hard disk. Or, perform
network copies. I run them in the background while I do other work.
Virtual machines are also useful. Just move guest OS
files between VM hosts. Virtualization lets you easily, safely, and
securely run multiple OS’s
on one computer.
Vendors are well aware that generic hardware and portable
software threaten their profits. That’s why most proprietarize any way
Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is the latest of many attempts to
competition by an artificial barrier. The rationale for UEFI
lockdown you often read
about — that it prevents boot viruses — is intended to mislead. The
secure booting was a major problem was back when people booted from floppies.
It’s not boot viruses you have to worry about, it’s those within Windows that cause the
Applying this Philosophy to Software
To apply this philosophy to software, I use stock parts that can
easily be installed, copied, or replicated across machines and backup
There’s a name for such software: open source. While open source
software (OSS) saves you money, flexibility and licensing are the big
control it, it doesn’t control you.
Let me give you a single example: backup and recovery. In Windows
World, there must be a dozen ways to recover a lost system (off-hand, I
can think of the Recovery Console, System Backup and
Restore, recovery partitions managed by OEM software from vendors like
HP or Dell, the Last Known Good Configuration, Safe Boot mode, Registry
Export/Import, and performing a Repair Install). Why so many
different ways to solve a single problem?
The answer is that vendors want to control your backup and
can’t lock you in and make you a source of continuing revenue. Vendors
of use” — but is it really when you face this tower of B/R babble?
With OSS, I issue a
single command to either backup or recover. I don’t have to navigate a
half-dozen different apps designed to “help” me.
Here’s a real-world example. My motherboard died last summer. I removed
the boot disk from the dead system and plopped it
into another, then booted that Linux instance on the target computer.
solved! Windows won’t let you do this. Its hardware-bound Registry,
authentication procedures, and licensing all specifically prevent it.
to. Why? So you don’t steal Microsoft’s software. Microsoft
places its needs to protect its ownership of Windows software above
your need to
your crisis. (Remember, you do not
own the copy of Windows you “bought,” Microsoft owns it. You only
Microsoft has every right to protect its property. But
that’s not our problem. Our problem is fixing our motherboard failure.
Because of their agenda, Microsoft makes our life more difficult.
Their software limits your flexibility — on purpose. Heck, you can’t
even move an installed app from one disk to another
without special software. The Registry — Microsoft’s
control choke point — prevents it.
OSS lets you easily move software
across machines or disks or operating systems with just a command or
two. I replicate operating systems, applications, and data how and when
I need to. No Registry, licensing, authentication, hardware binding, or
barriers make my job more difficult.
Here’s another tip: Don’t use an operating system you don’t install.
There was a time when a
vendor-installed OS meant peak performance and a malware-free system.
Those days are gone. Major incidents
have shown that preinstalled malware is now a reality, ranging from
spyware to rootkits to adware to craplets.
This problem will get worse before it gets better.
Security and privacy require that you control your computer. If you
use an OS someone else installed, you don’t control it.
the business world uses Microsoft’s desktop software. So a big issue
for those using my strategy is compatibility. How will
you fit into Windows World? The answer depends on the kind of work
For some IT professionals, this means running Windows and the Microsoft
stack. “Use what
your clients use.” I hear you and agree 100%. Do what you need to do.
For most people, however, compatibility merely requires file interchange. I’m in this
group. All we need for compatibility is the ability to create, update,
send, and receive Microsoft Office files.
Using LibreOffice, I’ve encountered very few problems in exchanging
processing and spreadsheet files.
Just stick to the features
common to both LibreOffice and MS Office and
avoid complex formats and layouts. The web has many articles
on how to use LO and MS Office compatibly. (Ironically, LO is often more compatible with older versions
of MS Office than is the current version of MS Office!)
The compatibility picture isn’t quite as rosy when it comes to
presentation graphics. Move a 40-slide PowerPoint file between office
you’ll see many minor changes (spacing and fonts,
for example). I circumvent this by presenting to
clients with my LibreOffice laptop and handing out hardcopies of the
Years ago, I used to double-check how my OSS-produced files looked
on Windows XP. For example, I’d check that a
Word document I created with OpenOffice looked
the same in MS Word, or I’d verify that
web pages created with Kompozer and Firefox rendered properly on
Explorer. I don’t know whether it’s because OSS compatibility has
improved, or that I’ve learned how to avoid incompatibilities, but I
haven’t bothered with double-checking for a long while.
Applications availability is another concern. Do all the
need run under Linux? Everything I need runs natively. For some folks
Microsoft products are an important exception, since all are
You can usually solve this problem with Wine, a compatibility app that runs
nearly 20,000 Windows programs
I’m an independent consultant. What works for me
may or may not work for you. Or for small or large businesses. Still,
when I see how some companies operate, I wonder if they’re
wasting money. Many could remain on Windows while strategically
replacing components to their great advantage. This avoids a
disruptive platform change while capitalizing on open source tools and
Office suites are the perfect example. Microsoft Office licenses
are not cheap, especially for smaller companies that can’t swing the
big discounts. LibreOffice and OpenOffice are functionally very
competitive. You really
have wonder why more companies don’t even evaluate them.
Some would answer: support. But what kind of support do you get
from a vendor that you can’t get from the Internet? I’m old enough to
remember when vendors created bug fixes for customer problems. Today
they just tell you to wait for the next release (which they always
insist you install, whether or not it fixes your problem). Support
consists merely of work-around’s and how-to’s. You
can get that online for free.
Another possibility is to keep Windows but
Microsoft’s proprietary development environment. Leave the
sands of Microsoft’s frameworks in favor of open source IDEs,
languages, tools, and databases. Some companies score good savings
while producing excellent apps
with WAMP (Windows + Apache + MySQL + PHP/Perl/Python ).
These ideas aren’t
for everyone, but it always amazes me that some IT pros are so
tightly wrapped in the vendor security blanket that they don’t even
evaluate alternatives. Some security blankets are well worth the money.
represent inexperience or inertia. Only
you know which statement applies to your organization.
The Bottom Line
parts work well for my hardware and software needs. They’re easily
replaceable so I enjoy 100%
availability. Low cost, high
security, and good privacy are extra benefits. What are your
requirements and what desktop strategy
do you use?
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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) supports databases and operating
systems and consults as an industry analyst. Read his other articles here.