Creating an Open-Source Desktop

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Creating an Open-Source Desktop

What to consider before adopting Linux, open-source software at your nonprofit

By: Graham Freeman

August 21, 2006

Consider yourself new to open source? Chances are, you're probably less of a novice than you think.

When it comes to the servers that work tirelessly behind the scenes to bring you sites like Yahoo or Google News, open-source software plays a huge role. In fact, 60 percent of all sites run on the open-source Apache Web server software, according to the August 2006 Web Server Survey.

Yet servers aren't the only platform where your nonprofit can use open-source tools. There are a number of ways you can incorporate open-source software into your organization's desktops as well.

No matter what your particular software needs, chances are that an open-source program exists to meet them. Below, we'll examine the benefits and pitfalls of adopting open-source software on your nonprofit's desktops, and show how you can move toward a complete transition from Windows to a Linux-based open-source desktop.

Considerations: Before You Begin

Whether you want to (legally) avoid software licensing fees or you're drawn to the accessible, non-proprietary nature of open-source, there are many compelling reasons to seek out open-source desktop solutions.

Yet while it's possible to run a productive office with nothing but open-source software, it's not always advisable. If your organization relies on a particular Windows application, for instance, moving to Linux doesn't make sense unless you can find software to replace it. (While you can run Windows applications on Linux using CodeWeaver's Crossover products, it is typically easier and more stable to run software natively.)

If, however, you're not tied to any particular Windows software, you may want to look into migrating all of your systems to Linux. Whether you plan a full migration or just want to try out a few open-source applications, it's best to take things slowly. Most users (and network administrators, too) find it helpful to begin by introducing one or two open-source desktop applications to the office. Once everyone is accustomed to using these programs, you can safely shift to all- or mostly Linux desktops.

The Components of an Open-Source Desktop

Web Browsing

Let's start with the easy stuff. With more than 200 million downloads to date, Mozilla Firefox -- an open-source Web browser that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux -- is gaining a larger share of the Web-browsing market worldwide.

Some of Firefox's advantages over the current versions of Internet Explorer (Windows) and Safari (Mac):

  • Firefox works essentially the same way on Windows and Linux, meaning that once you know how to use Firefox on Windows, you'll feel right at home using Firefox on Linux or with a Mac.
  • Firefox extensions make it easy to enhance and customize the browser according to your own particular needs. For example, the AdBlock extension removes various forms of advertising found on many commercial Web sites, and Google's Browser Sync extension makes it easy to synchronize your bookmarks and other settings between your home and work computers, or between your Windows and Linux computers.

One downside to Firefox is that some Web sites use proprietary technologies that only work with Internet Explorer. Fortunately, Internet Explorer and Firefox can coexist peacefully on the same Windows computer, allowing you to switch back and forth between them. However, if your organization uses a critical Web-based application, such as a donor management tool or a time-tracking solution that requires Internet Explorer, you won't be able to migrate to Linux on the desktop until you've resolved that dependency.


Mozilla Thunderbird , the lesser- known cousin of Firefox, is a respectable open-source email client that supports POP3 and IMAP for retrieving mail, SMTP for sending, and both SSL and TLS for keeping things secure. Thunderbird's built-in spam filter has earned the program a good reputation for helping to keep junk mail at bay. Although this requires some training on your part (by marking miscategorized email as Junk or Not Junk) Thunderbird learns quickly.

Best of all, Thunderbird, like Firefox, works more or less the same way on Mac, Windows, and Linux. This means that once you transition from, say, Microsoft Outlook to Thunderbird on Windows, you'll have relatively little trouble switching to Linux. One (potentially major) caveat: Unlike Outlook, Thunderbird does not currently support calendaring or to-do lists. The Thunderbird developers and their colleagues are working on a solution for this, but it's been slow going for years now.

Yet Thunderbird isn't your only open-source email option. If your organization uses Microsoft Exchange for email, calendaring, and similar needs, open-source email client GNOME Evolution will serve as a satisfactory platform-independent alternative to Outlook. Evolution receives commercial support from Novell and community support from a well-regarded group of software developers.

Because Evolution only runs well on Linux and Outlook only runs on Windows, you may have trouble switching from Outlook on Windows to Evolution on Linux. Development on Windows and Mac versions of Evolution continues, however, so be sure to check back in a year to see where things stand.

Calendaring and Task Lists

Many people are drawn to Outlook for its smooth integration of email, calendaring, and task lists. Others feel that Outlook's failure to adhere to standards, security problems, clunky interface, and behavioral oddities outweigh its advantages. Yet whether you love it or hate it, Outlook's platform-dependent nature can be restricting. Even its Web-accessible interface, Outlook Web Access, makes only a minor effort at cross-browser compatibility: Many Outlook tasks can only be done with Internet Explorer on Windows.

If your organization requires platform-independent Web access, The Horde Project — which offers open-source email, shared calendaring, task lists, contact management, and more — may be just the ticket. While The Horde Project software is free, it runs on the server side, so make sure your IT staff or ISP can support Horde.

Word Processing and Spreadsheets

Even if you've been able to avoid using Outlook, chances are that you're tied to other major components of Microsoft Office like Word and Excel. Fortunately, there's an open-source, cross-platform alternative: OpenOffice. This office suite runs well on Windows and Linux and carries out the same basic tasks as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. OpenOffice will even open and save simple documents in Microsoft Office formats, making it a good solution for Windows and Linux users working with basic everyday documents. However, if you frequently process complex Microsoft Office documents, use a Mac, or use macros, you may want to stay away from OpenOffice for now.


Databases are where open-source solutions can get tricky.

The specialized software many organizations use for fundraising and other tasks that can limit their choices in terms of which database they can use — often to a Microsoft Access or another Windows-only solution.

Yet if your organization is new to databases and you have an expert on hand to help you set one up, an open-source database can be a good solution, even on a Linux machine. OpenOffice Base is designed as a work-alike to Microsoft Access, and should be fine for those with simple needs. Alternatively, open-source MySQL and PostgreSQL are two open-source platform-independent databases, but require considerable technical expertise to deploy and maintain and are beyond the scope of desktop use.

Additional Resources

This article offers a basic overview of how a nonprofit organization might deploy open-source on its desktops, yet there are plenty of additional online resources online to help you find software, migrate, and deploy open-source solutions. Nonprofit consultants and volunteers may also be available in your area to help your organization transition to an open-source desktop.

Whatever you decide to do — be it trying out an application or two or a full migration — open-source software can be an easier, less expensive alternative to proprietary desktop solutions.