Living (and dying) with Linux in the workplace

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I quickly discover other software packages I wish I had. I use Adobe Photoshop Elements both at work and at home to do image processing. Unfortunately, Elements isn't available on Linux, and CrossOver doesn't support Elements.

CodeWeavers does say CrossOver supports full-blown Photoshop, but older Versions 6 and 7, not current CS2. In any case, I don't need the complete Photoshop package, which costs hundreds of dollars. Elements, which I got online for $50 after rebate, does just fine. I'm not saving much money using Linux if I need a $400 application package to replace a $50 one!

My SUSE installation includes an imaging package called GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), but the interfaces are rather different. I've invested more than 10 hours of training in Elements, learning exactly how to do what I need to do (improve and resize photos), plus I own several detailed Elements reference books. I'm not sure I want to throw all that out to learn GIMP.

iTunes isn't exactly a must-have business app, but I do enjoy listening to music on headphones from time to time in the office. I install iTunes under CrossOver, but it supports Version 4.9 and recommends against upgrading, which is unwelcome news if you want the latest features. (The latest iTunes version for Windows is 7.0.2.) Also, I can't access the iTunes store. This is a nonstarter at home, where we're a (gulp) five-iPod family.

More importantly, here at Computerworld we use Adobe InCopy for our print edition, and that's available only on Windows or the Mac. I don't need that application daily, but I do use it at least once a week -- more if I'm trying to track down a print-to-Web production problem. When Friday rolls around, I end up walking over to my old Windows machine to send in my writeups for Monday's print table of contents.

Adobe now offers Adobe Reader, Flash 9 and LiveCycle on Linux. Beyond that, PR director Rebecca Michals tells me, "We continue to evaluate Linux development based on customer feedback." Which sounds like PR-speak for, "Maybe if a lot of our large, important users demand it, we'll think about it. But don't hold your breath."

I'm able to access almost all of our Computerworld.com site analytics just fine, since they're browser based. However, I'm no longer able to use an IE-only plug-in called Click Map, which lets us see a "hot map" representation of how popular individual links are on any page of our site. That's an important tool in deciding whether to leave up a top story on our home page or replace it, and I find myself walking back to my old system to view the latest map.

Finally, I miss syncing my Palm T/X to my work desktop. It looks like it should work; there's an included application just for that purpose, called Gnome Pilot. But it doesn't.

I go searching on the Web, and find some step-by-step advice on NewsForge, an open-source news and information site. I try most of the recommended steps, without success. My volunteer admin gives it a try as well, but still no sync.

Here's an example of why moderate-level power users can be frustrated by Linux at times. We're likely to have hardware gadgets and added software applications beyond standard configurations. But we may not know enough to make Linux run what vendors don't officially support.

The issue isn't Linux technology or UI. It's vendor support. If there were Palm desktop software for Linux, I wouldn't need to be mucking around on the command line, installing packages and so on, just to back up a copy of my meeting schedule. To be honest, I can't sync my Palm on my system at home either, because Palm doesn't support Windows XP Media Edition, and there's no hope of hacking around to fix that. But it does sync just fine on my Windows system in the office.

On the upside

Little things crop up during my weeks working on Linux that show it's an operating system designed for serious users. For example, you can open up a terminal window from any folder, and the terminal immediately places you into the same directory you were just viewing. As far as I know, in XP there's only one way to get to the command line, and that's by going to the start menu, clicking on run and then typing in cmd. That dumps me into my C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator directory. It's a bit of a pain to then manually move to, say, my C:\Program Files\xampp\mysql\bin directory to issue a text-based MySQL command. Of course, I can (and did) write a batch script to change the directory, but I don't always know the directories in advance.

I can easily access files on my network drive from Linux, and moving them from my Windows system to the test Linux box is a snap. There's no need for typing out cp /long/filepath

/new/evenlonger/filepath if I'm not in a command-line mood. Dragging and dropping works just fine.

Playing an MP3 file is as easy as clicking on it and bringing up RealPlayer for Linux, an application that appears refreshingly spare in this incarnation. But as my Web developer colleague warned, watching a movie trailer on the Web, which I do with a click on Windows, is more complicated, since many are in Apple's QuickTime format and Apple doesn't provide a QuickTime player or a plug-in for Firefox on Linux.

One of the things I do NOT miss on Linux: Windows balloons nagging me about updates I'm not interested in installing. (IE7, anyone?)

When Linux plug-and-play works, it's a pleasant experience. I load up openSUSE, Novell's home desktop Linux operating system, from a live CD at home and pop in a USB flash drive; the contents of the drive are as simple to read on Linux as they are on Windows. When I boot back to Windows from my hard drive, the text file I created with Komodo Edit in Linux reads just fine back in NoteTab Pro.

I know people who think Microsoft Word is the best, most feature-laden, elegant and useful word processor on the market. I am not among them, and in fact rarely use it at work, since it tends to add all sorts of problematic characters to text that then wreak havoc when the text is pasted into our Web content management system. Novell's version of OpenOffice Writer works just fine for what I need, although I did laugh when a "helper" window popped up in the middle of some text cleanup, complete with lightbulb illustration. At least, it wasn't Clippy-style animation!

I am, however, a big fan of Excel. I like the interface and think it's an elegant piece of software. While I still consider Excel the best-of-category application, I'm pleasantly surprised by Novell's version of OpenOffice Calc. For example, when I scrape a report off one of our internal Web sites, it dumps into a formatted spreadsheet just as easily as when I do so with Excel. This is important, since I pull reports off that site several times a week, and don't want to have to cut and paste individual columns.

While some of my smaller apps like NoteTab are unavailable for Linux, others have cross-platform options. For example, I use an open-source Windows application called Password Safe to store various passwords. It's got close to 10 years of passwords stored in there, and I have a lot of passwords. Happily, someone wrote a Linux app that uses the same database format. Installing MyPasswordSafe turns out to be easy once the right source code gets downloaded.

Overall, I believe there are ways around most of the apps I'm missing, even NoteTab. But short of dual-boot systems or desktop virtualization, Adobe applications remain a challenge.

The final piece of the puzzle

When it becomes available, I download the public beta of Lotus Notes 8 for Linux, unpack some files and run the client installation file. This is the last critical piece of the experiment -- the way our newsroom is set up, it would be tough to do my day-to-day job without running the same communications platform as my colleagues.

After I answer a couple of questions and move a copy of my Notes ID file, I'm set up with Notes in just a few minutes. I can send and receive e-mail, access my calendar, schedule meetings, and use several of our newsroom-wide Notes databases.

It is, however, painfully slow, since my hardware configuration falls somewhere between "minimum" (512MB RAM) and "recommended" (1GB). Don't expect Linux to give new life to your old hardware if you want to run the latest version of Notes. I put in a request to upgrade my Linux desktop.

The bottom line

I expected to be a poster child for the next wave of Linux desktop adopters. I wanted to be. I like the whole idea of a technically macho, open-source operating system -- one that doesn't assume we all must be protected from an operating system's inner workings. I don't fear command lines, and enjoy fiddling around with programming.

It turns out that an intermediate-level power user may not be the ideal next desktop Linux demographic.

It was possible for me to do most, but not all, of my work on a Linux system. There are some applications I'd miss if I were to make the switch permanently, but I believe I could adequately replace them after sufficient research and time rewriting scripts.

There are a few other applications I definitely need access to from time to time and that won't run on Linux. I could probably deal with these either by virtual-machine Windows or by a separate Windows machine shared by multiple users. (Don't laugh -- that's what our copy editors did for awhile, since they're all on Macs and some initially wanted access to an ActiveX-control feature in our content management system.)

Other business users -- workers in sales, finance or human resources, for instance -- might also find that applications they depend on don't translate easily to Linux. They may find work-arounds; they may not.

While I liked many things about my Linux desktop (look and feel, elegant command-line implementations, robust open-source apps, the whole open-source concept), I found the lack of some key applications and the occasional hardware non-plug-and-play too limiting. Unlike Scot Finnie on Mac OS X, I'm not willing to tell Microsoft buh-bye. Not yet, anyway. But there's enough here I like that I'm going to keep the Linux system set up, too.

Transition issues and how to solve them

Whether you're a seasoned admin looking to move other users from Windows to Linux, or a Windows user looking to investigate a Vista alternative, you're likely to encounter some snags. Here are some issues I encountered when trying to make the switch:

Does my hardware work? One of the major frustrations of moving to Linux is getting deep into the transition, only to discover that a favorite device (iPod, PalmPilot) won't connect properly. If you're an admin at a company where nonstandard hardware can be connected to your corporate network, you'll save a lot of headaches if you inventory users about such hardware in advance before trying to move them to Linux. If you're an end user, you might save yourself some aggravation by doing your own inventory, followed by a Web search to see if there are any known issues.

Another possible step before going through a full Linux installation is to download a "live" CD or DVD version of Linux, burn it and then boot up off the disc. You'll have a working Linux system where you can try to connect to your network, printers, handhelds and so on. Both openSUSE and Ubuntu have live CD/DVD versions available for free download.

Will my applications work? Inventory all the applications you have to have, plus all the ones you'd like to have. Will they run on Linux? If the application's vendor/publisher doesn't support Linux but the software supposedly runs using something like CrossOver Linux, definitely test it first before assuming that's an answer.

If your applications won't run on Linux, either natively or jury-rigged, are there similar applications that will satisfy user needs? If so, what's the learning curve? If not, are you willing to consider the licensing and support costs of using dual-boot systems or desktop virtualization?

Where's my stuff? As a Linux/Unix admin or user, you may be so used to directories like bin and lib that you don't give them a second thought. But trust me, most Windows users who've never seen an *x system will blanch at that collection of unfamiliar file names. If you're an admin, make sure to give your users a cheat sheet of what the important folders are, how to navigate to them and how to find equivalents to Windows folders, such as Program Files and My Documents.

If you're a new end user, you may find useful information about this on your distro's Web site or in a book such as SAM's Linux Starter Kit, or online (try FreeOS.com or Red Hat). A Linux Forums post also includes a brief nod to the difference in Windows and Linux paths.

Should users have root access? This one is workplace-specific, since you'd obviously give yourself full access to your own home system. On the job here, my "admin" decided I should test the setup without having root privileges. I wasn't very happy about it. Without being able to access YaST, I was unable to do things like check system status or download and install some security patches. I suspect some of these barriers could be addressed by adding privileges to a nonroot user.

You might get the same level of displeasure restricting admin privileges on a Windows system, but on top of the move to an unfamiliar operating system, reining in power users' abilities is likely to add to general new technology grumpiness. If you're rolling out multiple Linux desktops, investigate whether there are ways to give users added access without compromising security. And if you decide to keep people out of YaST, make sure to tell them why and who they need to talk to when they've got needs requiring root-level access.

-- Sharon Machlis

Sharon Machlis is Computerworld's online managing editor.

This story, "Living (and dying) with Linux in the workplace" was originally published by Computerworld.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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