Linux desktop growing up and eyeing corporate users

If employees at Backcountry.com want a Windows desktop they better have a good excuse because the standard issue is Linux.

If employees at Backcountry.com want a Windows desktop they better have a good excuse, because the standard issue is Linux.

While some might think the backcountry-gear outfitter has been out in the woods a bit too long, the reality is that commercial Linux desktops are starting to show maturity, starting to improve their looks and starting to find a niche behind corporate walls.

“People have to justify Windows to get it, and even then I challenge them a bit,” says Dave Jenkins, the CTO for Backcountry.com. Nearly 70% of the online retailer’s 200 or so desktops are Linux, including multiuser machines stationed in the company’s warehouse. Those on Windows desktops typically need it to support Excel and the macros that run only inside that spreadsheet.

Commercial Linux for the desktop Behind a push from Novell, Red Hat and others, the commercial Linux desktop is starting to show signs of maturity. Here is a look at some of the desktop versions that are available.
DistributionCurrent versionPriceDesktopOffice suiteEvaluation
Novell10$50GNOMEOpenOfficeToday's desktop Linux to beat.
Red Hat4.0$180 - $2,500GNOMEOpenOfficeNot No. 1 in any area, technically, but perhaps longest list of independent software vendors and certified hardware.
Linspire5.1$50KDEGNOME Office, KOffice, OpenOfficeUpdate infrastructure lets user click and run applications from a centralized service.
Linspire6.06 LTSFreeGNOMEGNOME Office, OpenOfficeDistribution, software updates are free; user pays support only.
Xandros4.0$40-$80KDEOpenOfficeTops for Web application station in mostly-Microsoft shops.
SOURCE: DISTROWATCH.COM

Jenkins’s conclusion is that Linux is starting to make its case as a viable alternative to Windows.

Helping that notion are major vendors, including IBM and Sun who are putting a focus on the desktop, including IBM’s release earlier this year of a full Notes client that runs on Linux desktops.

And while no pragmatist in the Linux community will use the word “replacement,” the confidence level is up given Novell’s recent release of its desktop SUSE Enterprise Linux 10, the impending release next year of Red Hat Enterprise 5.0, and the growing popularity of the easy-to-use Ubuntu distribution and a myriad of other Linux desktop versions from Xandros to LinSpire.

Another driver may well indeed be the broken promises of Microsoft’s Vista operating system, which ships this month after five years of development and will arrive with only a small percentage of its original marquee features.

“Vista has reopened the buying decision,” says Justin Steinman, director of product marketing for Linux and open source solutions at Novell. “Customers are saying if I have to do this, what are my other choices. Our strategy is not to take out Microsoft; our goal is present alternatives to Microsoft.”

And Novell thinks it has a strong alternative in SUSE Enterprise Linux 10.

The desktop has an Office suite built off the Open Office project, and the desktop includes the Firefox browser, Gaim instant messaging client, Beagle desktop search engine, Xen virtualization and the Evolution e-mail and calendaring client that integrates with Microsoft Exchange Server.

Perhaps more important to corporate IT executives, SUSE 10 integrates with Microsoft's Active Directory and includes a management infrastructure built around ZenWorks.

But the most innovative portion may be a 3-D animated user interface, called the Spinning Cube, which can be rotated to show up to 365 workspaces or windows.

Novell says the innovative interface can be configured to support such desktop environments as call centers.

“We tried to innovate around the edges; we know no one wants to reinvent how they interact with their desktop,” Steinman says.

But while observers give Novell and others kudos on their innovations and evolution of the desktop environment, the decision is complex for even seasoned open source converts.

“Our desktops are too deeply embedded in the Microsoft world for us to consider [a Linux] deployment,” says David Whiles, director of IS at Midland (Texas) Memorial Hospital. Whiles, who has worked with Linux for 10 years, recently deployed a clustered open source Electronic Medical Records application – a $7.1 million commitment to open source and Linux. He also runs Web server and e-mail on Linux, but he says, “we don’t have any plans now to deploy Linux on the desktop.”

Some observers think it is the European market that will reach out to Linux desktops before U.S. companies start to listen en masse.

“Overseas markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China seem ripe because you might see more of it in government or in specific organizations reacting to mandates,” says Dana Gardner, principal analyst of Interarbor Solutions. “The economics of [the Linux desktop] in the U.S. makes more sense in small- to medium-sized businesses where you can give users a solution or service-based IT with features such as remote administration.”

The overseas market is finding faith in LiMux, the Linux desktop-migration project executed by the government in Munich, Germany. The government plans to have 80% of its desktops converted to a Debian-based Linux by 2008, according to a story in late October by the German news site Heise Online.

The online site quoted Munich’s Mayor Christine Strobel, “I am not a computer geek, but I must admit that it was easy to switch to the new software.”

The sites also reported that Munich has migrated 200 desktops and plans to move 14,000 more in the next two years.

And the European market is about to get infused with Linux choices, as Novell announced last month four white-box PC manufacturers – ETegro Technologies, MAXDATA, Transtec and R Cubed Technologies – plan to globally distribute laptops preloaded with SUSE 10.

Gardner says that certain situations are ripe for Linux to make inroads.

“There is an opportunity for rich Internet applications to become predominant, as people use them in a controlled environment with a browser on a Linux desktop that has full networking capabilities. Certainly, that has a lot of potential and cost efficiencies vs. a full-scale Vista PC,” he says.

That is the tack being taken at Backcountry.com, where Jenkins uses the Linux desktop as the platform for an open source, browser-based ERP system called Interchange. But Jenkins adds there are other factors such as the maturity of Open Office along with the Linux desktop interface, which he says does not look “cartoonish” anymore.

He adds that his Red Hat and Ubuntu Linux desktops vs. Windows mean fewer licenses to maintain and fewer viruses finding ways into the network along such popular paths as e-mail and Web browsing.

And Linux desktop vendors are improving their wares on a regular basis; for example, Red Hat aims to ship a new version every 24 months

The next, Red Hat Linux 5.0 ,will be available early next year and include iSCSI network storage support, smart-card integration, clustering and a cluster file system, and Infiniband support. Other important additions include upgrades to its Security Enhanced Linux and the Red Hat Network support infrastructure and the introduction of stateless Linux, which replicates data to a server to aid in recovery.

Red Hat even has its own directory service that integrates with Active Directory.

“It use to be the two biggest roadblocks [for the Linux desktop] were Active Directory and Exchange support and those two are gone now,” says Gerry Riveros, product marketing manager for client solutions at Red Hat.

Another concern, however, has been application support both in the number of applications available for the desktop and compatibility with different Linux distributions. While major vendors are helping solve the application issue, a project going on behind the scenes may be adding just as much fuel to the Linux desktop evolution.

The Portland Project, which began in December 2005 at the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), last month released the first in a series of Linux desktop interfaces and tools aimed at simplifying the process of porting and integrating applications on GNOME and KDE Linux desktops.

In essence, developers won’t have to develop a version of their applications for each individual Linux distribution.

“End users will never see the Portland tools,” says John Cherry, desktop Linux initiative manager at OSDL. The first set of command-line tools ensure that menu items and icons show up in a consistent way on the desktop.

Cherry says the small market penetration of the Linux desktop can make it hard to attract application developers, “but Portland gives them one more reason to port their apps to Linux.”

And, he says, it should help those ISVs cut testing cycles at least by half.

The Portland tools will be in the next commercial distributions of Red Hat, Novell SUSE, Linspire and Debian derivatives, while Xandros already includes them in its toolkit.

The interfaces have been used by Google to port Google Earth to Linux and RealNetworks is developing its next-generation software based on Portland.

Asked whether all this would add up to the Linux desktop denting Microsoft’s stronghold, Cherry says with a laugh, “We just don’t go there. I don’t really know how to answer that question. All I can say is that the Linux desktop has some really good capabilities now.”

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