Lots of people have told you that Linux is cheaper than Microsoft's Windows brand systems; this column explores a different question: what are the risks and consequences of using it at home?
In today's installment I'll look at the use of email and calendaring on Linux at home for people who use one of Microsoft's Outlook or Exchange products at work.
The good news is that there are lots of smart, easy choices. The bad news is that all of them require some degree of co-operation from the Windows gurus at work if you want to access your work email and schedule from home. If you don't, there's no problem at all --Linux comes with all the mail, collaboration, and scheduling facilities you're likely to need.
Connecting to your office email isn't technically difficult either, but it does require the co-operation (although often only through inaction) of your office network and server administrators because they control the server accesses you'll need.
Among the many options three stand out as particularly effective:
This is far from perfect or elegant, and means you'll be phoning the office to schedule meetings but is dead simple, doesn't require active co-operation from the office Windows gurus, and pretty much gives you the information you need to work with.
With this stuff on your home box and a decent connection to your office server, you might as well be in the office when it comes to scheduling and email, plus you have such Linux advantages as the more consistent GUIs, full multi-tasking, and greater reliability. The downside, other than the 50 bucks, is that the Windows babysitters in your office can kill this by fire walling you off from the server.
Of course that shouldn't happen, but it often does because a lot of these guys don't really understand where the security problems are and how to get you hooked up without compromising it. The right answer is for them to establish a virtual private network, or VPN, in which your email and scheduling information is encrypted as it travels across the internet. There are two main ways to do this:
This takes some office set-up and requires an an additional processing step on the server but has a fixed cost that changes only with large jumps in the number of users. For one user the $5,000 or so required in the Windows server environment is a lot; for 500, it's about the same as a can of Hub's roast peanuts.
Both, of course are cheaper and more reliable than using something like the CISCO VPN client for Windows 2000 but, sadly, the more common answer is for the wingots to insist on a Windows client and so use your choice of Linux at home as an excuse to wash their hands of the problem.
VNC connects a client, or viewer, with a server but doesn't really restrict what
those are, so people have done versions for devices including the Geo
communicator and Palm Pilot - just in case you want to run your Windows 2000
based Excel spreadsheet from your playphone.
In fact, if both ends support true multi-tasking you can run both the server and the client simultaneously on each of two machines to produce an apparently endless recursion of screen images containing screen images - like holding a mirror before a mirror.
Setting up either version for default configurations is utterly trivial - basically click "install" and go. Getting it to work with secure shell and/or with a PC type firewall that does network address translation requires some expertise but also illustrates the fundamental open source idea that there's always another choice. In this case the people behind tightvnc offer an upgraded shareware version (they ask for $10.00) that makes this kind of thing much easier.
All three of these solutions come with some degree of risk even if that's nothing more than the chance that someone will break in and steal the documents on your home machine - along with the machine itself, of course.
The bottom line on using Linux at home to access office email and scheduling running in an all Microsoft environment is that there are several very good choices, but all them depend on some co-operation by the people who run your office systems. Their "nyet!" may be pure reflex, but your response shouldn't be.
Understand that the inevitable will happen, their network will be breached, some documents or files will be compromised, and "their" first response will be to blame you even if your entire home Linux system is inherently more secure than their Microsoft client-server network.
The right answer here is the same as for any other predictable crisis: preparation and planning. Before you start using office email and scheduling on Linux at home, get a paper trail in place on what the risks and benefits are to your organization. If your boss sees the risks as outweighing the benefits - simply don't do it. On the other hand, discuss both the risks and the benefits with your boss, get that support visibly in place, and your decision to use Linux at home won't mark you a maverick, it'll make you a leader.
next in series (Is it kid safe?)