Do you depend on your computer every day? If so, I hope
you’ve carefully thought about your choice of hardware and
software. Otherwise you'll end up unhappy when your computer
I'd like to explain why I rely on generic desktops and
laptops running free software to give me 100% availability.
They're a low-cost solution offering excellent security and
There are several strategies you could adopt for high availability. Some choose to pay more for higher quality equipment. Their bet is that this results in fewer failures. Others rely on vendors for support. They select a responsive company with a good reputation for service. Many prefer local support staff who are easily accessible. Here's a thoughtful article by a guy explaining why he picks iMacs for high availability.
I take a different approach. I use generic computers with all stock parts. Since they're so inexpensive I can keep several on hand. It’s easy to swap parts if necessary. PCs are highly standardized — so long as you acquire them with an eye to non-proprietary components. I open up and inspect every machine before I acquire it. (Watch it with laptops. Some vendors will mold their DVD drives to non-standard shapes or add proprietary plastic you have to fit on your hard disk to properly connect it.)
For my self-service approach to work, you have to know how
to identify and remedy common hardware problems. That's not
hard. Anyone can do it with a little effort. I even wrote my
free Quick Guide to Fixing Computer Hardware
to show you how. The key is that you identify a problem,
then quickly swap in a replacement part.
Another change from years past is that you no longer need current hardware to run current software. I run all the common home and office apps with a few gig of memory and a dual core processor. That’s a five to ten year old machine. You can get an entire fleet of them for the cost of one hot new Microsoft Surface laptop.
Key to my approach is that you keep your work — your data —
portable. Back it up and move it between machines with a USB
memory stick or portable disk drive. Never get caught in a
situation where your data resides only on a single machine.
Or on one device.
Of course, this applies regardless of how you try for 100%
availability. Machines do sometimes fail. Up-to-date
data backups are essential no matter what hardware and
software you use.
I also use free software that can easily be installed,
copied, or duplicated.
There’s a name for such software: open source. While free open
source software (FOSS) saves you money, that may not be its
biggest benefit. Flexibility and licensing are the key. You
control this software -- it doesn’t control you.
Here's an example: back up and recovery. In Windows World,
there must be a dozen ways to recover a lost system.
(Off-hand, I can think of the Recovery Console, System
Backup and Restore, recovery partitions managed by the
hardware vendor, the Last Known Good Configuration, Safe
Boot mode, Registry Export/Import, and performing a Repair
Why so many different ways to solve a problem?
The answer is that vendors want to control your backup and
recovery. Otherwise they can’t lock you in and make you a
source of continuing revenue. Vendors claim “ease of use” —
but is it really when you face this tower of backup/recovery
babble? Once you use one of their tools to back up your
data, you have to use that same vendor's tool to recover it.
Or it's no data for you!
With FOSS, I issue a single command to either back up or
recover. I don’t have to navigate a half-dozen different
apps designed to “help” me. And I can perform my backups and
recoveries any way I want, no restrictions.
Here’s a real-world example. My motherboard died last
summer. I removed the boot disk from the dead system and
plopped it into another. Then I booted from that disk on the
target computer. Problem solved!
Windows won’t let you do this. Its Registry, authentication
procedures, and licensing all specifically prevent it.
They’re designed to. Why? So you don’t
steal Microsoft’s software by moving it to another computer.
Microsoft has every right to protect its property. But
that’s not our problem! Our problem was fixing our
motherboard failure. Because of their agenda, which they
hold supreme, Microsoft makes our life very difficult. Their
software limits your flexibility — on purpose.
Remember, you do not own the copy of Windows you
“bought.” Microsoft owns it. You only paid to license it.
With FOSS, all those Registry, activation, licensing
problems, and software copying restrictions disappear. You
can easily move a disk drive between computers. And you can
copy software anywhere you want.
Security and privacy require that you control your
computer. If you use pre-installed Windows, you don’t
control it. With FOSS, you do.
As the premier FOSS system, Linux comes bundled with a complete
set of applications. These cover everything you can think
of, from home and office apps, to graphics, multimedia,
internet, communications, and games. It's all free. The
Linux master libraries offer upwards of ten thousand more
free apps you can download and install at your whim.
But even with all this available, much of the world still
uses Microsoft’s desktop software. Even with increasing
competition from Google's Docs
and their G Suite! So a concern some bring up
is: Using FOSS, how do I fit into Windows World?
Second, many software vendors provide Linux versions of
their Windows products. So you can still run the same
application, but under Linux instead of Windows.
Third, you can run most any Windows program directly on
Linux using a program called WINE. Just look up your application in
database first. That will verify that your app runs
under WINE and tell how you to set it up. The auxiliary
tools PlayOnLinux or Winetricks help with installation.
For most of us, compatibility with Windows users means just
one thing: file compatibility. We need to be able to
create, update, send, and receive Microsoft Office files.
I use LibreOffice, a major competitor to Microsoft Office. LO does a great job with MO file compatibility. The only limitation is that you'll want to stick to features common to both LO and MO. Avoid obscure features and super-complex documents.
These articles help with how to use
LibreOffice and Microsoft Office compatibly. And here's some
irony for you. LO is often more compatible with older
versions of Microsoft Office than is the current version of
Microsoft Office! That's because Microsoft has to keep
changing MO in order to sell more product -- regardless of
whether customers feel they need or want these "upgrades."
Note that, while word processing compatibility is
outstanding, the picture isn’t quite as rosy when it comes
to presentation graphics. Move a 40-slide PowerPoint file
between MO and LO and you’ll see many minor changes (spacing
and fonts, for example).
When I see how many companies operate, I have to wonder how
they can afford to waste money.
Some could switch from Windows World entirely and save a ton in licensing fees. Others could remain on Windows while strategically replacing specific components to their advantage. This avoids the need for a platform change while still capitalizing on open source tools and apps.
Office suites are the perfect example. Microsoft Office licenses are not cheap, especially for smaller companies that can’t swing the big discounts. Free competitors like LibreOffice and G Suite are functionally very competitive. You really have wonder why some companies don’t even evaluate them.
Some would answer: support. But what kind of support do you
get from a vendor that you can’t get from the Internet? I
remember back when vendors created bug fixes for customer
problems. Today they just tell you to wait for the next
release -- which they always insist you install, whether or
not it fixes your problem. Support consists merely of advice
about how-to's and work-around’s. You can get that online at
Another potential area of savings for companies is to keep Windows but replace Microsoft’s software development environment. Leave the ever-shifting sands of Microsoft’s proprietary frameworks in favor of free tools, programming languages, and databases. Some sites achieve good savings while producing excellent apps with WAMP (Windows + Apache + MySQL + PHP/Perl/Python).
It amazes me that some companies are so tightly wrapped in
the vendor security blanket that they don’t even evaluate
alternatives. Some security blankets are worth paying for.
Others only represent inertia, or inexperience. Only you
know which statement applies to your organization.
Free Yourself From Vendor Shackles
Inexpensive stock parts work well for my needs. I can
switch hardware and software on a moment's notice, however I
like. In return, I enjoy 100% availability, low cost, high
security, and good privacy. You owe it to yourself to look
into this approach.
Howard Fosdick is an independent computer consultant. Read his tutorials and how-to's here.