Show shines light on desktop Linux

BOSTON - While many Linux converts are focused on moving their data centers off of Unix, a second front for Linux migration soon could take shape on corporate desktops.

Among the 6,000 attendees at last week's LinuxWorld Expo were several IT professionals touting big savings and improved performance as the drivers to migrate server applications to Linux. Meanwhile, some users are beginning to look at Linux on the client side as a way to ease Windows desktop management and support headaches.

Linux desktops are starting to take off at Cisco , which has about 2,000 engineers using Red Hat Linux for writing software code, and hardware and chip design.

Migrating corporate users from Windows to Linux PCs presents both technical challenges and obstacles in overcoming corporate culture, says J. Craig Manning, IT manager at Cisco. In addition to supporting Cisco's internal network, Manning chairs the Open Source Development Lab's Desktop Linux Steering Committee .

If users think they are going to save money on software or support by switching to desktop Linux, they will be in for a surprise, Manning says.

Factors that even out the Linux/Windows desktop costs include retraining employees; installing applications that support Windows applications on Linux; and support subscription fees from Linux vendors such as Red Hat, which are necessary for software updates and patches, Manning says. As more Linux desktops are brought on, Cisco also will have to look into a new desktop back-up solution that supports both Linux and Windows - another cost.

The advantage of Linux on the desktop is simpler administration, Manning says. Linux includes many built-in tools, such as Secure Shell (SSH), which can let a remote administrator easily access and troubleshoot a desktop. Also, the ability to hide and partition underlying system files and operating system underpinnings from users on Linux is helpful.

Manning estimates that it takes a company one desktop administrator to support 40 Windows PCs vs. 200 to 400 Linux desktops.

Many tools are now available that can help a Windows-to-Linux transition, such as Codeweavers' Crossover Plug-in , which Cisco uses to support Microsoft Exchange clients on Linux desktops. The evolution of other open source, Linux-friendly applications, such as OpenOffice and Firefox, also make migration easier, Manning says.

With many of the company's tech-savvy users now on Linux, Manning says the next challenge is spreading the technology. He is working to create a stable, standard laptop build for Linux, with so many of the company's employees using notebooks. The technology also has a key supporter inside the firm: Cisco CIO Brad Boston uses a Linux desktop, according to Manning.

Another systems administrator at LinuxWorld agrees that an all-Linux desktop environment would be preferable.

Josh Bernstein, a systems analyst at the University of Arizona at Tucson, describes supporting Windows desktops as "a nightmare."

He supports Windows PCs, Linux desktops and a cluster of Linux servers in the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Troubleshooting Linux PCs with remote management tools such as SSH is less time-consuming than Windows machine maintenance, Bernstein says. "With Linux, I don't have to get up and walk over to the system and see what's going on," he says.

To this end, several vendors at LinuxWorld announced new client-side tools. Versora showed off its Progression Desktop tool, which moves files and converts PCs settings from Windows to Linux. Win4Lin also announced a new version of its software that lets Windows 2000 and XP applications run on Linux desktops.

But the real payoff with Linux still appears to be in large Unix-to-Linux data center server migrations, according to other show attendees.

Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), a network of three hospitals and more than 20 healthcare facilities in the Boston area, is turning to Linux for most of the new server applications it acquires. The healthcare group previously ran an almost all-Windows shop, with a few Unix servers supporting a large outpatient management application in clinics. When the time came to upgrade the Unix-based system a year ago, Linux was considered.

CHA took time to demonstrate the stability of the new application on Red Hat Linux to senior management. But what caught the eye of the CHA brass was the savings: The cost for Intel-based hardware and software support for Linux was about half of similar systems based on Unix and proprietary chip hardware.

"When a new vendor comes in the door and talks about an application, we've been putting the screws to them: If you want our business, you should have a Linux offering," says Seth Sladek, manager of systems engineering at CHA.

A different firm that found savings by migrating older applications to Linux was FreshDirect, a Long Island, N.Y., food distributor. The company migrated its back-end order processing system, hosted on Sun Solaris servers, to Red Hat Linux, running on hardware from Egenera, whose blade servers support virtualization across pooled hardware resources, such as processors and memory.

The benefits of the Unix-to-Linux swap were obvious, says Myles Trachtenberg, CTO of FreshDirect. With 13 dual-processor Egenera blades, FreshDirect replaced 200 Sun servers and improved the company's core application average response time from 8 seconds to 1. Trachtenberg also estimates that the company will save close to $2 million in hardware costs.

"There is no reason to stay on Unix," Trachtenberg says. "The price/performance and the stability are there with Linux." But users interested in migrating applications to Linux should be aware of the pitfalls.

"The issues are usually not with Linux itself, but in getting two or more products working together on Linux," he says.

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