Desktop interoperability in a mixed-platform environment

Service provider takeaway: Service providers can help customers overcome desktop interoperability problems in a mixed-platform environment.

There has long been a perception in the minds of many corporate managers that Linux and open source applications are best left in the data center. Indeed, clients are encountering hurdles getting proprietary and open source desktop applications to integrate with one another. Fortunately for service providers who work with open source systems, tools such as

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Evolution make Microsoft Outlook compatibility issues on open source systems a thing of the past; meanwhile, to address formatting problems when working with files saved in Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org has export filters for Microsoft Word.

Email client interoperability

Fundamentally, is it problematic for users of open source mail clients to collaborate with Outlook users? The short answer service providers can give is: No.

Let's analyze this interoperability issue from a server perspective. If a customer has 5,000 clients using Microsoft Outlook and decides to migrate its Exchange mail server to an open source solution, such as Zimbra or Scalix, the customer could absolutely keep every Outlook client. The perception that changing a mail server to an open source solution requires a corresponding change to an open source mail client is simply wrong.

But what happens if you convert a computer to Linux from XP or Vista? While you can't run Outlook on Linux, there are other email clients that service providers can offer to customers as solutions. Evolution is one client that many open source converts actually prefer over Outlook. Furthermore, a product like Evolution does a superb job standing in for Outlook as an Exchange client on Linux machines. And when Evolution is paired with the Connector -- a technology that allows Linux desktops to operate inside a mixed proprietary and open-source environment -- users are able to have most of the same functionality as with Outlook.

Tricks for winning an open source 
interoperability services deal

To get the open source services contracts you want, make sure to do the following:

  • Configure your own office as a mixed-platform environment, both to gain knowledge about the gotchas of the environment and to use as a showcase for potential customers.
  • Ensure that presales engineers have an open source OS and applications installed on their laptops when visiting customer sites.
  • Have presales engineers demonstrate how Evolution can work with Outlook and Exchange and how OpenOffice applications can communicate with Microsoft Office applications.
  • Assign a dedicated support team on your staff that will serve your open source and Linux applications. Even if the support staff has a single person, it will help provide the right level of service to customers.
  • Don't be afraid to provide vendor-supported support solutions that can augment the services you provide. Just because your clients have Microsoft contracts does not prevent them from using your services.
  • Never be afraid to educate your customers -- they will be that much more satisfied with your services. Provide more than enough documentation to customers, both home-grown and vendor-based. Clients are concerned that when you are gone, they will have to rely on Google for answers and help.

Once the Connector is installed and configured, Exchange Server 2000/2003 clients are simply able to replace Outlook with Evolution to manage all their daily collaborative tasks: email, calendar, group schedule, address books and public folders. This level of desktop interoperability makes switching to an open source system easier for customers.

Office suite interoperability

If an email client is the most used application in a typical customer shop, the office suite might be the second most used. And customers need to know how open source office applications integrate with the corporate standard, Microsoft Office. SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (which incorporates Evolution) introduced OpenOffice.org Version 2 in 2005 (the current version is 2.3.1); Version 2 has advanced Microsoft file compatibility features, including pivot table imports, support for Excel Visual Basic spreadsheet macros and integration with Microsoft Active Directory. Version 10 of SUSE Linux comes loaded with the Novell edition of OpenOffice.org, which includes a full suite of office productivity applications including a word processor, presentation and spreadsheet applications; an HTML editor; and a drawing tool. OpenOffice.org also has extensive file-format compatibility with Microsoft Office, allowing an employee using Microsoft Office to read documents from a Linux user.

Further, OpenOffice.org ensures compatibility between Open Document Format (ODF) and Open XML. Service providers can stress that Writer, OpenOffice.org's word processor, can open customers' old Microsoft Word documents and allow new work to be saved in Word format. It is also worth noting that the Novell edition of OpenOffice.org does not strip out Microsoft Office macros but preserves them, allowing for even greater compatibility.

OpenOffice.org has the bonus of including fonts that are, for the most part, extremely compatible with Microsoft fonts. The biggest problem customers face with fonts is not having them installed on their computers. Missing fonts can cause formatting irregularities. To help alleviate the problem of a font being called for that isn't installed on the machine, OpenOffice.org includes export filters for Microsoft Word 6.0, 95, 97/2000/XP, and 2003 XML. While it is far from the perfect solution, it still helps.

About the author
Kenneth Milberg is president and managing partner of Unix-Linux Solutions. He has 15 years of experience with Unix and Linux systems, as well as broad technical and functional experience with AIX, HP, SCO, Linux and Solaris. Milberg holds certifications with IBM (IBM Certified Systems Expert -- eServer p5 and pSeries Enterprise Technical Support AIX 5L V5.3, and IBM Certified Specialist -- HACMP), Sun (SCNA, SCSA), HP (HP Certified -- HP-UX administration), Cisco (CCNA) and Oracle (OCP-DBO).

This was first published in January 2008

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