Living (and dying) with Linux in the workplace

Are you looking for a Windows alternative for serious office work? Many people are starting to wonder about their non-Microsoft operating system options, especially given Windows Vista's hefty hardware demands, upgrade costs and license restrictions. Scot Finnie, Computerworld's online editorial director, has already examined using Mac OS X in the workplace.

Now, I take a hard look at Linux by using an enterprise distribution exclusively at work. I'm not simply playing with a test machine; I've been using Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10+ day in, day out to do my job as Computerworld's online managing editor.

After several weeks, I can report that desktop Linux does appear ready for no-frills home users. But things get a bit more dicey for corporate users like me.

If your needs end with e-mail, simple (non-IE-optimized) Web browsing, word processing and spreadsheets, desktop Linux distros, such as SUSE and Ubuntu, are ready for you today -- even in the workplace. At the other end, if you're a high-end technologist, you've probably got the interest, aptitude and ability to get around nonsupport obstacles and dive deep in the guts of your kernel.

But if you're somewhere in between, well, as one of Computerworld's Web developers cautioned me, there's a very steep learning curve in going beyond basic Linux use. If you're a Windows power user who needs applications beyond the basic office and communication tools, if you've been trained on them, customized them, written scripts for them and come to depend on them in your day-to-day work, you're going miss them.

In addition, if you've got a handheld, portable media player or other mobile device, chances are it's not as plug-and-play on Linux as it is with Windows.

That's not a knock on Linux as a piece of software. It's a problem of market share and clout. There's no company with Microsoft's marketing muscle cajoling major software firms, such as Adobe and Intuit, to support the platform.

To be fair, at least there's a possibility of hacking an application when it won't officially run on Linux, which is less often the case with Windows. And that might be a fun challenge at home. But I usually don't want to hack an application at the office. I need to get my work done.

First impressions

After years on Windows XP, it's kind of fun to see something new on my desktop. And after months of Microsoft hype, I'm happy to be checking out something that's not Vista.

My volunteer "IT admin," Computerworld's online special projects editor Joyce Carpenter, reports that the SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop setup was a snap.

Setup, part 1: Installation

As volunteer admin, my job was to install SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop on an old Dell machine we had kicking around the office, and to connect it to our office infrastructure.

Installation is easy: Just put in the CD, pick a few things, agree to a few things, click "next" a lot of times, put in the next CDs, one after the other, and voila! It's done.

A few specifics:

-- I selected GNOME for the desktop interface. In my mind, I associate KDE with a more advanced user than the one I'll be supporting, although if there ever were a reason for that association it is now lost in the mists of a very poor memory.

-- I tried to give "root" an easy password -- this is only a test, after all. But it would have none of that. I had to go with eight characters that do not form a word but do include numerals.

-- I made two user accounts, one for me (jcarpenter) and one for Sharon (smachlis), giving each a strong password.

-- I accepted the default networking configuration. This included an enabled firewall and a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol-enabled network card, which was discovered without any problem.

-- I downloaded the latest updates and enabled automatic updates, which was the only change from the defaults for the entire installation process.

-- Joyce Carpenter

If you think that open source means "cheesy or nonexistent UI," I can assure you that my Linux desktop appears designed for business. Sleek and reasonably serious (well, except for the default lizard wallpaper), it offers Windows-like graphical menus to get to files and apps, along with elegant command-line access if you want to control your system via text. My initial thought: This is an operating system for grown-ups. It's hard to imagine a Microsoft-style Clippy animated "helper" popping up here!

My new Linux station is actually an old Dell Pentium III machine (remember those?) with a 40GB hard drive and less than 800MB RAM that couldn't even come close to running Vista.

In less than an hour, I'm convinced that Linux is indeed a way to get more life out of old hardware. I'd prefer a speedier machine -- who wouldn't? -- but the system is ready to do real, 2007-era work.

SUSE Linux out of the box is bundled with a lot of applications, including a souped-up version of the OpenOffice suite and software to read files in Adobe PDF, Flash and RealMedia formats (notable omission: QuickTime). There are multiple Web browsers and text editors, Novell's Evolution e-mail, calendaring and collaboration package, and other preloaded apps, such as the Gaim instant messaging client.

Unlike many of the applications included on new Windows systems, these don't seem to come with annoying self-launching advertisements, such as the irony-challenged Trend Micro Anti-Spyware pop-up upgrade pleas that plagued my HP system at home. Novell's SUSE also boasts some of the on-screen eye candy corporate users have come to expect, such as a 3D swoosh when a window minimizes.

The basics work well right off the bat. I've got a network connection; I can print; I can surf the Web using one of several included Web browsers. I can easily access files from a network drive and import my Firefox bookmarks. Although we couldn't get a version of Notes for Linux to try out during my first week of testing, I still have access to e-mail and my calendar via the Web.

Several people stop by on my first day working on the new system to ask me, "What's Linux like?" I'm almost embarrassed to say that at first blush, it's a lot like Windows -- but with more free apps and more access to command-line control. Of course, under the hood, there are many more differences.

Web work goes particularly well. I'm primarily a Firefox user on Windows, but also have to use IE in the office because it's the only Windows browser that works properly with our content management system, Interwoven's TeamSite. The good news is that Firefox on Linux works with TeamSite, even though Firefox on Windows does not. (Firefox on Mac also works well.) I'm only missing an ActiveX plug-in for WYSIWYG editing that I rarely use anyway.

I download a test Excel spreadsheet from Google Docs & Spreadsheets into Open Office, and it works flawlessly. After a few hours, I'm convinced this whole test will be a piece of cake and I'll be penning a glowing endorsement of Linux in the workplace, without a single reservation.

I'm wrong.

Setup, part 2: Getting connected

My second task as Sharon's admin was to get the Linux machine integrated with our network and communications tools.

Network file servers: I had some trouble accessing our Windows file servers, but then I found a "Connect to Server" option on the Places menu. From it, I chose "Windows Share," entered the UNC name, clicked "connect," entered my Windows login information (name, domain, password) and was connected.

Printing: Selecting the Applications menu > Utilities > Printing > Printers launches the Common Unix Print System Manager utility. To print, just double-click the New Printer icon, enter the information it wants and print the test page. No problem, right? Well, mostly.

There was one little glitch that required some research to get over. I knew the editorial printer was an HP Laser Jet 4000. I knew it was attached to an HP Jet Direct. I had the IP address of the Jet Direct, so I entered it, continued to the next screen and selected the printer. All seemed fine. I created a test page in a text editor and sent it off. But off it didn't go. I double-checked the settings and tried again. Still nothing.

An hour later, I found the information I needed in the reference manual mentioned in the startup guide. When it asked for the Host, it wanted a name. I printed a test page from the Jet Direct, got its name, typed the name in the Host field and it worked. In YaST (Yet another Setup Tool), SUSE's main admin tool, I made it available to all users and it appeared in the Printers list for the users.

E-mail and calendar: We use IBM's Lotus Notes, and this turned out to be an initial sticking point, since IBM didn't want to give us a test copy of an older version Notes for Linux when the Notes 8 beta was due out any day. Fortunately, Notes has a Webmail client, so Sharon still had access to her e-mail and calendar via the Web. She later installed the Notes 8 client public beta herself.

-- Joyce Carpenter

The first major snag

It's day 3, and I've discovered the first application I desperately miss: NoteTab Pro, a US$30 text/HTML editor I've used for years. It's got elegant one-click menu commands for everything from adding HTML tags and links to changing text case, joining lines, stripping HTML (with or without keeping links), quoting and unquoting text, and checking spelling.

I'm well aware that there are better pure text editors out there, and better pure HTML/programming editors as well. But the intersection of functions NoteTab offers is what I need on the job. NoteTab has a somewhat quirky scripting language, one I wouldn't want to learn as a standalone programming language, but I've developed a bunch of scripts to automate routine editor tasks we do here, such as cleaning up text when freelancers send in heavily formatted Word docs.

When I get my first major feature as a Word doc, it opens up fine in OpenOffice, and I do some editing in there. But without NoteTab, I have no automated way to strip out Word formatting I don't want and add in HTML coding I do want.

Having a Windows virtual machine on my system would let me run NoteTab. But one point of this experiment is to see whether I can live solely with Linux on the job, theoretically avoiding the expense and support costs of a second operating system.

So I turn to CodeWeavers' CrossOver Linux Professional, which is designed to allow you to run Windows software on Linux without needing a Windows license (or installation). CrossOver Linux is based on the open-source Wine project, offering what it calls "a compatibility layer for running Windows programs" based on the Windows Application Programming Interface.

I'm thrilled when NoteTab Light, a free version of NoteTab, seems to install seamlessly, even though NoteTab is not one of the officially supported CrossOver apps. It's especially entertaining when, during the installation process, CrossOver says: "Simulating Windows reboot."

Alas, the more robust Pro version won't even open. And Light seems somewhat flaky when I try to add my scripts (called "clips" in NoteTab-speak). There are other annoying glitches. Much of the time, there's no option to save when I'm working on a document, so I've got to close my document to get the "Do you want to save?" dialog box each time I want to store my work. I also encounter glitches from time to time when trying to place my cursor within a document, and "select all" often doesn't work. Search and replace seems somewhat hit and miss.

Ah, well. I begin the search for a replacement text/HTML editor. ActiveState's Komodo Edit holds promise. It's got recordable macros as well as programmed ones. However, it's designed for developers, not journalists, so it doesn't include editorial functions such as spell check.

Kate, a text editor included with my SUSE Linux desktop, is a possibility, since it has many of the NoteTab functions I've used to save time, such as joining lines and changing text case, although not some of the more elegant one-step, built-in commands such as "strip HTML but leave the links."

I move my feature into Komodo Edit and then Kate until I finally get it "clean" enough to put into our straight-ASCII-only Web content management system. Most annoyingly, I end up coding all the paragraph marks by hand, since I don't have the patience to figure out the Linux end-of-line character and run multiple search-and-replace commands (some paragraphs had one line break, others had two). Just like back in 1995!

This isn't to say I couldn't get up to speed with a new text editor and new macros. I'm sure I could. But this requires an investment of a scarce resource in our newsroom these days: time. It's clear that if we were to move from Windows to Linux, some power users would take an initial productivity hit while we figured out how to streamline tasks that were automated on our old platform.

I'm still searching for a great text/HTML editor for Linux, by the way; more on that in a future article. Feel free to add your suggestions to the conversation. Several readers have suggested Vim (for "Vimproved"), which I find slightly alarming, since I used text-based vi on Unix for years and disliked it intensely. Perhaps Vim really is improved; I pledge to give it a try. But not this week. For now, I'm cutting and pasting from one app to another in order to get all the functions I miss in NoteTab. Sigh.

Other apps I miss

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