Life after Win XP: another approach - Part 2

Last week in the first instalment of this series, I introduced the idea that free and open source software (FOSS) market leader in most areas of computing and it's also a viable upgrade path for users of the soon-to-be-orphaned Windows XP. I noted some of the implications of migrating from XP to a FOSS computing environment.

This week: the nitty gritty. Remember that the various migration options I describe are not aimed at end-users to undertake themselves. As with any IT network, some aspects of an XP to FOSS migration are best left to IT professionals: you will want a skilled FOSS support organisation on board to achieve sustainable long-term results.

Desktop Hardware: reuse or renew?

FOSS-on-the-desktop is often promoted as a way to squeeze more life out of tired hardware. While various versions of Linux can be extremely lean compared to Windows, I would encourage anyone looking to re-invigorate ageing computing hardware to recognise that the user experience, regardless of operating system, will be better with up-to-date computing hardware.

Running old computers is a false economy - everything takes longer, you will have hardware failures (the likelihood of failures increases markedly with age), and it will annoy those forced to use them. Consider donating your old machines en masse to schools or non-profits, who could turn them into low-maintenance Linux thin clients (more on those next week).

Getting the job done

For most computing infrastructure serves one purpose: getting the job done. Getting your job done means having access to your files and data, and the right sort of software apps to accomplish the tasks for which you're responsible.

In the FOSS world, the ideal is a combination of FOSS desktop and web-based apps that allow you to do everything you need. It is easiest to set up and maintain in the longer term, and some of us are already living the dream. Unfortunately, typical organisations come with baggage like legacy software. So the questions is "how can I run the Windows-specific legacy apps I need on a FOSS desktop?"

Here are three scenarios which between them will let you run any application you're currently running on XP:

  1. /

    Installing WINE - Cinnamon desktop on Linux Mint


    The WINE Project is a FOSS effort that could never be accused of lacking ambition: its developers have written an environment which fools Windows applications that they're actually being installed and run on a Windows desktop rather than on Linux. Over the past 15 or so years, they've effectively reverse-engineered and replicated the proprietary Microsoft Win32 libraries with incredible fidelity, even recreating specific bugs to suit the surprisingly many Windows applications which depend on them.

    WINE is often installed by default on Linux desktops. If not, it's a few clicks and seconds away via your inbuilt software installer.

    WINE won't work with every Windows application, but it will work with surprisingly many, particularly of the XP vintage. You can check whether any given app is supported on the WINE HQ App Database. If your app isn't listed it may still work just fine - just give it a try.

  2. /

    Windows 7 in VirtualBox on my Linux Mint desktop

    Windows Virtual Machine

    Every business seems to have a few crucial Windows applications which don't run acceptably with WINE. You can still accommodate them - and get extra mileage from your XP licenses - by setting up an XP Virtual Machine (VM) on your FOSS desktop. It's easy to do - all you need is the Oracle's FOSS VirtualBox and an install CD for XP - and you can use actual-real-live Windows XP in a FOSS environment.

    You can install any apps you used to run on XP on this desktop-within-a-desktop and be almost certain they'll run here (the only exceptions are likely to be apps dependent on special hardware components). The VMs are great: you can copy and paste between them, easily share files, and most importantly with XP losing Microsoft security support, you can "sandbox" XP. It can be set up so it never talks to the outside world directly, thereby minimising the ways nasties can get to it.

    VMs also lets you create periodic snap-shots which you can use to revert to a "known good" configuration if, through bad luck, you do contract an XP virus. You can minimise disruption by storing your important data files on your FOSS desktop's filesystem and using the VM's filesystem only for the apps themselves.

  3. Remote Desktop

    For expensive proprietary apps and those with strange licensing restrictions, you can run a single instance on an XP VM on a FOSS server on your network. For XP apps which depend on specialised hardware you can simply continue using XP system it already runs on, but use network configuration to isolate that machine from external security threats.

    In either case, your users can use the apps from their FOSS desktop via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) subject, of course, to each app's license limitations. This is equivalent to, but lower cost than, the proprietary enterprise convention of using Microsoft Terminal Services or Citrix. Similarly, you could also fork out for newer workstations running either Microsoft Windows or Mac OSX to include in your otherwise FOSS network, similarly making them available to to your users via RDP (subject to any license-related restrictions on those products).

Next week, in part 3 of this series, I'll talk about managing networks of FOSS desktops, integrating Windows and Mac machines, and provide glimpses of other FOSS desktops.

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

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.