The four most trendy Linux developments

From desktop distros to open source virtualization, these four Linux topics are hotter than hot.

My daughter recently attended a party where an artist twisted black, white and orange balloons into a penguin. When she happily showed me her prize, all I could think of was Linux. Now that the open source operating system has become so pervasive I see it symbolically everywhere.

But even in the deafening noise surrounding Linux, four topics stand out: the duel for the desktop, 3-D desktop tools, isolated virtual environments (also known as containerization or virtualization), and mobile Linux devices.

Ubuntu vs. Novell's SLED

Linux on the desktop has long been a trendy topic, but these days makers of distributions are as interested in duking it out with each other as they are in taking on Big Bad Bill. Generating the most buzz is the head-to-head battle between Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED 10) distribution and Ubuntu 6.06. Novell seems to have had a bit of an edge in features that appeal to the enterprise, according to my colleague Don Marti, editor of Network World's LinuxWorld Web site. Novell has enhanced OpenOffice to run Visual Basic macros, making the operating system more appealing than Ubuntu for replacing Microsoft on a work machine.

Users agree. At the University of New Mexico's Office of Contract Archaeology in Albuquerque, LAN administrator Adel Saad is using SLED on about 10 machines. "The unique thing about SLED is that it comes with OpenOffice - an entire office suite fully compatible with Microsoft Office," he says. With the sweet prices offered to schools, he paid $25 per machine for the package. Microsoft's pricing for XP couldn't compete, he says, and it didn't include Microsoft Office.

For Saad, the savings on SLED continue, because his 10 desktops can support 100 users as if each had his or her own machine. He's using a SLED add-on product from Omni Technology Solutions called Linux Desktop Multiplier. He buys one desktop machine, adds graphics cards, monitors, keyboards and mice, and as many 10 users can access the CPU simultaneously, each accessing their individually configured settings.

"I am moving toward Linux, because of the cost savings with open source, plus stability. And Linux generally isn't getting hacked as much as Microsoft," he says.

But Ubuntu 6.10, released last month, will give SLED a run for its money, promises Matt Zimmerman, Ubuntu CTO. Ubuntu also offers a commercially supported version, and because of its zealous user base, some 16,000 applications are available for the distro, he says.

The XgL effect

Saad also is a fan of the buzzy XgL application, which adds snazzy visual features to his desktop. XgL is based on the X server architecture that runs on top of the OpenGL language (used for graphics). Novell's XgL version obviously works with SLED. XgL adds visual controls to the desktop, such as graphical search tools and thumbnail views but is best known for its 3-D effects. For instance, to switch from one open application window to another, the windows rotate as if they were on a 3-D cube.

Plus, 3-D support is creating an even broader industry stir. In September, Intel announced it would offer open source drivers for its graphics chipset, placing pressure on proprietary graphics card makers to release fully open Linux drivers. Large-scale desktop deployments using these cards are a maintenance nightmare, because security updates and driver patching and testing don't occur via the distribution maker. Open source drivers will solve that, and desktop customers will be able to get their updates through a single channel, just as server customers do.

Virtually Linux with OpenVZ

The open source community has an answer to virtualization, too, and this is a source of major Linux buzz. Server virtualization in the form of the OpenVZ project has given birth to a commercial product, SWSoft's Virtuozzo. Users also can buy a support contract for OpenVZ, though Virtuozzo offers more features.

OpenVZ, providing operating system-level virtualization, lets hundreds of isolated virtual environments run on a single Linux kernel. It supports different distributions of Linux, but because it runs at the operating-system level, it does not let different operating systems run on the same box.

Still, for an enterprise that needs to maximize hardware use for Linux applications, OpenVZ offers high density and management. Also worth mentioning is that it can be had for a fraction of VMware's cost - though you can run OpenVZ on a VMware server, too.

Yes, you can take it with you

When it comes to Linux in its mobile forms, the hype is stronger than reality.

The term "mobile Linux" peaked and plummeted over the summer. In June, mobile phone makers launched a coalition to create a distribution for mobile phones. This came on the heels of Nokia's release of the 770 Palm-sized tablet, an e-mail client and Web browser operating on embedded Linux that LinuxWorld's Marti believes deserves "gadget of the year" designation. By the end of the summer, however, many insiders viewed the activity as a ploy to put pricing pressure on mobile operating system maker Symbian.

Someone forgot to mention that to other device makers, however. In September, QTopia launched a mobile device with a software development kit for Linux mobile applications, and D-Link said it would ship a dual-mode (cell and Wi-Fi), unlocked Linux phone in the first quarter of 2007.

While these devices offer lots of cool features (and sometimes hefty price tags) the value of Linux to the phone user is less obvious than its value to the phone maker. Or to paraphrase a comment logged on Slashdot about the D-Link: Make phone, say Linux, generate profit.

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