Migrating to Linux in the Enterprise Using Vendor-independent Formats

Monday Jul 16th 2007 by Roy Schestowitz
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For a successful migration, data needs to be stored in a format that is independent from single applications and proprietary standards.

An impulsive and immediate migration to Linux can sometimes lead to disappointment. Ambitious businesses are sometimes led to believe that their data can merely be be dumped from one platform onto another, but the reality is a little more complex than this. In order for a migration to be successful, one needs to be familiar with native Linux applications, and the data needs to be stored in a format that is independent from just a single application.

Changing one's favorite application can be hard. Everyone resists the introduction of new things, especially when they threaten and have direct impact on the force of habit. For a very long time, large and well-established software vendors have capitalized on people's reluctance to learn new processes, such as identification and menu items and familiarity with user interfaces. Some software vendors went further and defended these processes by introducing the notion of ownership, then essentially patenting behavior. Even more software vendors used the idea of obscurity to restrict (or altogether eliminate) people's ability to change. This is known as lock-in.

Many of these issues can easily be addressed when transparency is embraced. Moreover, sharing of information facilitates more rapid development of knowledge. It speeds up improvement where all peers involved can move forward in harmony, without jeopardising unity and conformity.

A single unified format is the key with which various businesses can communicate conveniently. It is also highly essential for the enhancement of the existing formats, which should preferably remain party-neutral, backward compatible, complete, and elegant. In a world of unified formats, different businesses are able to compete with one another not through restriction or punishment of rival developers and consumers, but rather through innovation, added value, reasonable cost, and a decent level of support. For example, in the case of documents, one unified format is currently OpenDocument format (ODF), and for static documents, Portable Document Format (PDF) has become the norm.

The dawn of the GNU/Linux operating system was a time when the software industry had already evolved (or devolved) into a predatory marketplace. This market was fragmented and isolated. Different software vendors strived to capture their costumers using proprietary formats. Corel, for example, was happy enough treating its popular word processor as though it did not need to interoperate seamlessly with rival software. IBM was no exception. In later years, especially in the United States, software vendors added extra protection to their offerings by making not only their application code a property, but also the ideas behind it. Ownership could then be associated even with mathematical notions. That is the effect of software patents. This shields vendors and yields nothing but nervousnous for competitors and customers. Perceived risk and dependency can be worrisome indeed.

To a software startup that wishes to compete, or even to a customer, the marketplace appeared like a pseudo-ethical and pseudo-competitive playing field at the stage where monopolies prevailed. In the late '90s, the barrier to entry into the market was associated with the complexity of so-called standards. As far as documents are concerned, standards were chosen not by government bodies; instead, there were virtually no formal standards at all. Existing standards, which were simple, got abandoned or extended unilaterally. De facto standards, which were subjected to unpredictable and sudden changes, became ubiquitous enough to be perceived as the standard. People were no longer able to properly understand the meaning, purpose, and importance of standards, which gradually became more innately closed. These were neither free nor open.

Years passed on and people accumulated data. Inability to access older data, which is related but not identical to digital preservation, opened many people's eyes. For example, consider the case where a person loses metadata that accompanies photos if moved from one application to another or one file system to another (a common scenario when changing or upgrading an operating system). Suddenly, people's personal information -- including memories with sentimental value -- became obsolete and no longer accessible. In some cases, the effort required to regain access to information was just too great to be worth handling. People learned to accept losses, but they also realized that there was a different way -- a better way even.

This awakening led to a reform, at least at a mental level. People began bothering to check which formats they can and cannot rely on. Formats were associated with trust and perceived as an important factor. Some people went further and demanded software for which all source code was available.

To enable wider access, various formats such as Portable Document Format (PDF) were formally standardized. Tight control of this these formats was conceded. In turn, new formats were created which also remained independent from applications and companies. One such format is OpenDocument Format (ODF), which is now widely recognized as an international (ISO-approved) standard for documents.

The introduction of a limited set of formats that multiple vendors can work with has resolved notorious and much-loathed (by the customer, not the vendor) issues, most notably lock-in. Backing from international organizations meant that these formats were by no means formalized to benefit one application or one operating system. No company was truly in control of the process. Portability was improved at the application level and the operating system level. People who prefer different platforms -- whether an application or the underlying operating system -- were able to exchange information at ease and also in a non-lossy fashion. This improved productivity for various reasons.

First among those reasons is personal convenience. There is no one piece of software that suits everyone. There is no parity in user expertise due to level of experience and various backgrounds (including training and education). Different people think differently and thrive in individual strengths. A programmer, for example, might be able to handle technical complexity, whereas a writer can express himself or herself in a clear and eloquent fashion. Any technical peril you put in a writer's face might simply become a distraction and obstruction – simplification enables a writer to be more focused.

The second reason why a unified format solves and addresses many problems has to do with the fact that it eliminates the need to transform and translate of data from one format to another. The data is contained in a form which is defined by one "gold standard." It is a case of abstraction, or separation into layers. Data becomes entirely independent from the application that supports it.

Having identified reasons why no single application suits everyone, one can look at the needs of a business. Businesses must standardize on formats, not software. Formats are verbal and technical specifications, not code. As long as the specifications remain unchanged or evolve in an open, transparent, and carefully monitored fashion, business information is secure. It preserves its integrity in the long term. Businesses, moreover, needn't rely on one particular vendor anymore. It puts the businesses in charge of their financial destiny and puts their data in the hands of responsible, supervised, and peer-reviewing industry consortia.

With open standards comes choice. Change becomes easier. Suddenly, barriers that once hindered and hurt one's mobility are no longer there. An enterprise that planned or endlessly procrastinated a migration to Free software, for instance, suddenly finds that its exit costs -- the costs that are associated with escaping lock-in -- are lowered significantly. Once lock-in is left behind, it no longer needs to be coped with ever again. It is a one-time investment in liberation of vital data.

The great attraction of an open standard is related to its ability to open doors to better, less expensive, and better-supported software. It is a strategy shift. Enterprises must realize that their new identity – in which they are no longer dependent on a single supplier – comes through standards. Blaming the inability of an application to mimic the behavior of another is a classic case of an enterprise adopting the wrong route for its migration. It clings on to the past (legacy) rather than looking into a future where truly open and free standards are increasingly being accepted.

The attraction of open standards is at this point greater than ever. There is a meeting of the minds coming up and there is a crossroad to be reached. Microsoft Office 2007 comes to a larger market, and the ISO will vote in favor or against the format that accompanies Office 2007. It is known as Office OpenXML. Its proponents boast of its size and function while opponents protest strongly, using the argument that it is inelegant and too tightly coupled with operating systems and a single application. A major standards group is about to meet and discuss this soon, so perhaps so should you.

There remains a conflict of intrests and desire, in which unified formats are thought to be replaceable by compatibility layers that enable access to data that is stored in proprietary formats. In the case of Linux, some judge its readiness by its ability to simulate non-Linux applications (or sometimes virtualize them). This very well exemplifies the misconception about the value of a single standard which is here to stay. Choice of applications, digital preservation, backward compatibility, and sometimes full access to application source code are among the many benefits.

Admittedly, this way of thinking rarely seems to be natural to everyone. It is a paradigm-related and conceptual issue where specifications are confused with code, applications are confused with formats, and standards are taken for granted (or not taken at all). If you foresee your business, or your family, or your friend moving to Linux in years to come, the first step you ought to take is appreciate vendor-independent formats such as OpenDocument. Many companies and even governments are supporting and embracing OpenDocument format. The OpenDocument Alliance, which is an independent body, maintains a partial yet extensive list of its backers. Some are actively promoting OpenDocument while some passively accept or usher its arrival.

The next stage of a migration process should typically involve taking the existing data in a format that is recognised by the same application on different platforms or by different applications that understand (and thus perfectly interpret/parse) the data. This data can then be moved across partitions, across computers, or across operating systems. This is the stage where migrations to Linux can become seamless.

Migrations between platform -- whether to Linux, or to any other platform for that matter -- should always boil down to the information level, not the application level. Remember that a platform can support multiple applications that achieve the same thing. In turn, each application supports a set of formats, but ideally just one that is universal. Identify that universal format and make the first step towards choice of both an operating system and an application. Your data is your bread and butter. Do not give it away and do not invest in proprietary or mysterious keys that unlock this data, especially if these are keys you can never truly own or control.

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