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How to get Linux on your corporate desktop

Slipping a Linux desktop into a Windows-dominated corporate environment can be easier than you think. Part 1 in a series.

Day one

(LinuxWorld) -- I remember it well -- the first day of my new job at IDG.net. I woke up early, put on the clothes I laid out the night before, and flew out the door. As I sat on the train, I wondered what this new position would be like, what I would do, who I would talk to, where I would go for lunch, and a million other details. After 15 minutes of travel, I stood in front of my new office building.

I sauntered in the door and met with my new boss, who led me to my not-quite-so spacious cube. The desk was three inches lower than ideal, and when I sat in my standard black swivel chair, my monitor was two inches lower than my chin. Perfect. You may think the next part sounds terrible, or perhaps that I am a whiner. I powered on the Dell Dimension tower placed beneath my desk, and before my eyes a nightmare appeared: The dreadful Windows 98 splash-screen!

I figured I could live with it. I certainly didn't want to take on the role of token tech-geek complainer, especially on my first day. Besides, who knows what sort of network environment I was going to be dealing with. Of course, one can maneuver Linux to coexist in just about any environment. Somehow, in my imaginings, I pictured myself wrestling Windows NT 4.0. If that were the case, it would definitely take some fine tuning make Linux run efficiently in the office.

BSOD

Sure enough, IDG.net hadn't upgraded to Windows 2000. Just as disappointing was the Lotus Notes server handling company e-mail. I figured it would be a good idea to tough it out for a few days, learn which applications I needed, and then plan my changes. I logged on to the domain, double-clicked that pretty little blue "e" on the desktop, and followed the instructions, per the "Blue Screen of Death" that appeared before my eyes. Wonderful, it took me all of 46 seconds to crash my machine. I rebooted, waited for the scan-disk to finish scan disking, and repeated my domain logon. The rest of the day passed quickly and crash free.

Day two

At 11 A.M., a polite man from the I.S. department appeared, introduced himself, and asked if I had any questions regarding my computer or its applications. "Okay if I get rid of this bug?" I asked.

"What bug?" he replied.

"Windows 98, of course."

"No!" he said, then clarified his answer. "We support Windows machines and applications only. If you choose to use an alternate operating system, you will be on your own with everything."

He spoke the perfect answer, and an understandable one given our business. The IS department in this building supports several IDG businesses. As you may know, IDG produces information technology-related periodicals on dead trees and the Web, conducts research, and produces trade shows. Many editors haunt this building, and as you might expect computer editors to do, some futz with their machines' innards at an intensity far greater than the average salesperson or bean counter. Hence our IS department's "You deviate from the norm and break it, you fix it" policy. I've since learned there is also a "Don't mess with the network" policy, too, but that creates no problem for Linux.

If you find yourself in a sea of Windows at work, find the official and unofficial policies towards alternate operating systems. Don't expect to change a rigid prohibition. After all, your employer owns your computer and your time on the job, and if your organization makes it a firing offense to use something other than an abacus, stone knife, and bear claw as your computing tools, well, then you're stuck.

Another item in the common sense department is compatibility. Which applications are taken for granted? In IDG.net's case, we complete most of our work with browsers that connect to IDG's public Web sites, which is no problem for the common Linux browsers. On the other hand, we use our browsers to throw the levers and turn the knobs on the Oracle database that controls www.idg.net. Some HTML code on our internal Oracle server is tricky, and I discovered that not all Linux browsers render it properly. The other critical compatibility issues I needed to resolve at IDG.net are the company-wide deployment of Lotus Notes and the use of AOL Instant Messenger. Failure to resolve any one of these would scuttle my plans for a Linux desktop at work.

The changeover

After a week of enduring Windows 98, I found that doing a short rain-dance before booting my machine would assure me less than three "BSOD's" per day. Meanwhile, I planned my migration to Linux and collected software. The next Monday, I brought in my trusty Slackware 8.0 disk (Slackware is great!). After my dance, I booted Windows 98, navigated to the device manager, wrote down the details of every bit of hardware inside of my Dell, and as a final slap in the face to the installed Windows 98 operating system, turned off the power without going through the suggested shut-down procedure. The next step was to go into the BIOS setup and instruct my machine to boot from the CD-ROM. I saved the changes to the CMOS, punched the reset button, and inserted my Slackware disk.

After completing the beautiful, simple, text-menu style, full Slackware install, I went ahead and re-booted my machine. I could already feel the grin coming from the Dell in front of me. I logged on as "root" and began the tweaking process.

The author steps up onto his soapbox

There is a good feeling involved in getting around the quintessential "MAN," and doing something your own way. It feels much like I remember feeling when I went to rock and roll shows when I was a teenager. It feels good to know that you are helping add to a true "Underground Revolution" if you will. Imagine: a majority of people actually using "Technology-based" technology rather than "For-profit" technology! To think that something as simple as putting an open-source operating system onto a workstation in the heart of the corporate environment can be such a step forward. It is! They are forking out more money than I can imagine in licensing fees, while I, the lowly editor, circumvent their ways, and use a superior machine for free.

Software

This is really the most important step in the Windows-to-Linux transition. We have installed Linux, but darn it! Fonts look weird when I browse the Internet, Microsoft Office is gone, I can't browse the network, I can't print, and as I mentioned, we use Lotus Notes for inter-office e-mail. Now what?

At IDG.net, the editors use Office applications rarely. At most offices, however, finding a tool that reads and writes Microsoft Office file formats is critical. We will talk about the other issues listed above, and hopefully many more, in the remaining parts of this infinite-part series. Back to the Office replacement.

We find bundled with the Slackware 8.0 distribution a sweet little program called AbiWord. AbiWord falls in the GNOME applications umbrella, and makes a wonderful replacement for Microsoft Word. You don't need to do anything special to use AbiWord. No configuration. No installation. It is just plain ready to go. AbiWord supports multiple file types, and defaults to its child .ABW format. You can also edit HTML, .DOC, .RTF, and a whole slough of other file types.

Gnumeric is a spreadsheet application, which is a direct opponent to Microsoft's Excel. The 10-megabyte tar-ball of version 1.0.4 awaits at Freshmeat and about a million other download resources online. Just configure and install the source code (If you don't know how to do this, see resources below), run the program and start spreading sheets! The interface is similar to Microsoft's Excel, and any level Excel user should have no problem controlling this application.

The leading office software contenders is Star Office. Star Office costs nothing, and available for download at the Sun Microsystems Web site. Star Office bundles a word processor, browser, e-mail client, calendar, spreadsheet, presentation utility, and some other office utilities into an easy to use GUI. Star Office actually integrates so well with a Linux system that you can use it as a desktop environment. There is a Start Menu uncannily similar to the Windows desktop. This Start Menu contains all of the programs found in the GNOME and KDE start menus. The installation is also easy . Star Office consumes processor power and memory at a porcine rate, but at the end of the game, I find it a functional, all-in-one office utility, which, in my book is the No. 1 contender to Microsoft Office.

All this said, we will take a break, and resume in the next installment. What we have done today is move a great deal forward along the path to integration of a computer running Linux with a Windows environment. We installed the programs we need to perform every day functions in the office -- write a proposal, check your e-mail, use a spreadsheet, plan your week.

In the next installment, we cover Samba installation, programs to configure Samba, and some GUI front-ends, which you can use to make Samba look great.

More Stories By Nick Davis

Nick Davis is an IDG.net and Linux.SYS-CON.com editor.

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