Caged Heat: Using Open Source in a Windows Workplace

I work primarily with Windows but let me say that I, like many of you, have no choice in the matter. We don’t live in a world where the company tells us, “Well, here’s Microsoft Office and everything we do is on a web app. Have fun!” My goodness, that would be a relative paradise for many people. You could potentially go hog wild and use the applications you want.

Still, a lot of us work with very clunky tools sometimes set on a gray-haired version of Java and birthed from Windows installers. It’s a sad reality that a lot of highly-specialized practice software applications, many of which attach to MICROSOFT databases, will only run on Windows because the developer is selling these apps for profit and not for fun. They also happen to know that 95% of the market is drenched in……Windows.

Sometimes it’s just company policy–huge barrier. Quite frankly, with all this talk about diversity in the workplace you’d think they’d include operating systems in the conversation. I’m going to copy and paste that last thought into another file because there may be another article in that, if not a Google+ rant. Ranting’s fun.

I decided I would let one of two young men prevail in this situation. One could win by simply residing to inferior tools and being miserable at work, taking frequent breaks. The other, however, is a bit more calm and reasonable and searches for open source tools that do the same job, if not better. So let’s take a look at some of the work-safe alternatives that can help you not only get the job done, but maybe even help you excel (D’AAAAH! Excel!) and get the job done better and more efficiently.

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Report Analysis–Vim, Emacs

The “Swiss Army Knives” of development are a data analyst’s dream. Honestly, I know someone who was using Microsoft Word and Excel for this, switching back and forth between applications. It was like a sad dance that sent the message of “You’ll never have a homelife again.” This person would honestly cry at work. (No, it wasn’t me.)

It takes some time to learn these tools effectively and you’ll want to brush up on your regular expressions. But it’s probably the best kept secret in the data analytics world.

For example, when you look at a report, you understand there’s a rhyme and reason to each sequence, each space, each character position. Raw data is highly efficient, but not fun. But if you open it for editing in a text synthesizer, like Vim, combine it with your regex skills and follow your corporate reporting guides (if you have them) and you could have a very productive work day. You can write regex to do so many amazing operations that you’ll be able to spot report anomalies like a ravenous hawk and make those corrections. Again, it takes a little practice, but it’s easier than you might think.


Database Queries–MySQL Workbench

You probably balk at the mention of Oracle. But let’s not forget that they’ve also purch…sorry, given us some great tools that don’t cost one thin dime. This is one of my personal favorite tools.

Assuming you have read/write access to your company’s database, you can make changes to as many elements as you need quickly and easily. Keep in mind that you might need a little cooperation from your company’s IT department and others in order to be able to connect this tool to a database. But explain to them the benefits of this product and you might make some believers out of them.

Also, if you’re one of those who don’t and never will get write access, MySQL Workbench will still work very nicely in allowing you to pull data quickly and in very easy-to-read output. This app is your friend.


General Productivity–LibreOffice

I love LibreOffice because it’s founded on some very solid code and is developed by one of the most dedicated communities in the entire world. They understand that there is not one among us who has a job that isn’t touched by the classic elements of the productivity suite. Even if you’re not in a company that has embraced the open document way of doing business, then you’re covered with Microsoft file format compatibility.

I can testify about a certain situation in a previous job involving our corporate Intranet. LibreOffice was our ticket. We actually ran into a situation where we were creating online training quizzes in a very ancient, yet very comfortable for our executives. Due to a change in its HTML export features, MS Office wasn’t cutting it. We decided to give LibreOffice a try and, perhaps due to the formatting of the quizzes being closely aligned with an older version of PowerPoint, the new online quizzes worked. Make no mistake, they were as ugly as they ever were. But that’s what the company wanted. Thank you, Document Foundation.

If you’re one of those who tried OpenOffice (RIP) back in the day but weren’t impressed with the slowness in opening Excel spreadsheet files, you’ll be delighted at how quickly they load now; it’s pretty much seamless.

Users will also note the simplicity in the features and menu items across LibreOffice apps in comparison to MS Office’s. Sure, it’s not as “cutting-edge” as Microsoft would have you think. But let’s be honest–how many features in Office are you ever going to use? If you have no caveats in this area, then LibreOffice could be your man.

If, however, you work in a department that has heavily scripted its productivity suite workflow, you may succeed or fail when trying LibreOffice for the same tasks without reinventing the wheel. So in some cases, LibreOffice is more of a qualified recommendation.

Also, I’ve heard from many accountants that Excel is really the only way to go in terms of spreadsheet use. But that’s a very good discussion idea for another day, if I do say so myself.


Web Applications–Firefox Browser

This one shouldn’t be a surprise. The fact is that a lot of business, such as PeopleSoft from Oracle, are web apps, connected to via a URL, the browser acting as host for the interface that connects to a remote server. Some hate this but some love it. Depending on your Internet connection your experience will range from “No problem!” to “Noooo!!! Problem!!!”

Assuming your place of business has listened to its reliable sources in the IT department and the planets have aligned toward that end, your connection speed will be phenomenally good and web apps will be something you’ll be able to love, at least in the connection and interface areas. (How you feel about the application itself is subject to whether or not your monitor has sustained any injuries inflicted by you. Don’t do anything like this.)

The ability to run an application like this in a browser such as full-bodied and dependency-satisfying as Firefox is a great thing in more than one way. Depending on the app, there are cases in which you can actually run it very well in a proper Linux desktop. Huh? You like that? I can tell you from my PeopleSoft experience that I have run it successfully in Linux serveral times inside Firefox. Beware any updates that could break the compatibility, but it worked for me.

Worst case scenario, you could possibly still run the app on the Windows version of Firefox.

The Good Kind of Rebellion

There’s a distinction I’m trying to draw here, so don’t take it at the most academic sense. There’s a difference between this and mutiny. The goal should always be to get the job done and done well and for your rewards to follow. That said, this is not my way of co-signing anything that could potentially hurt your position at work or to hurt your workplace in any way. Always check with your immediate supervisor and let them know your intentions are to simply do your job while adhering to certain software preferences. Make your case diplomatically. Who knows? You might be able to convince them how much better Linux and open source is at doing the job where you work. At the very least, between you and me, we know there’s almost always a better way than Windows.

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Michael Huff
Michael Huff is a programmer and data analyst in the healthcare field in Hazard, Kentucky. A Linux enthusiast, he has worked in the IT field for the last seven years. He also has a background in journalism and contributes a weekly tech column to a local newspaper.

He resides in Carrie, Kentucky with his wife Dana, his son Aiden Roth, two rescued dogs and a very capable and deadly three-legged cat.

After several years using Ubuntu and Debian-based distros, he recently ventured into the openSUSE world.

3 thoughts on “Caged Heat: Using Open Source in a Windows Workplace”

  1. I work for the city of Copenhagen. We have a software deployment system for installing applications from a catalog. Software without cost can be installed through this portal without approval from management.
    This gives me access to Libreoffice, Filezilla, Gimp, GanttProject, 7-zip, Notepad++, PDF Split and Merge, Smplayer, VLC and other good things. I have written PDF-SAM into some of our tasks and often use GIMP for quick image manipulation. Good to have the tools from home.

  2. I solve this problem by bringing in my own hardware. Fortunately, it doesn’t violate any policies. It’s easier than asking IT for permission to dual boot and avoids the possible “We don’t support that platform” discussion to follow.

  3. Good to know there are options for most of these, I’d also like to expand the list with some of my own recommendations. Most workplaces use Microsoft Exchange as a way to handle e-mails and instant messaging, fortunately you can use DavMail and Thunderbird to connect your e-mail address, company contacts and calendar with it. I also read somewhere you can use Pidgin this way to connect to company Lynch messenger. The other one is really great, in my field most researchers use SPSS or SAS for statistics, R however is just as good if not better (its better) for this task.

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