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Introduction to the Linux Desktop

Introduction to the Linux Desktop

I've been a dedicated Microsoft user since the beginning. However, the increasing frequency of operating system upgrades, rising minimum hardware requirements, and the general lack of valuable features included in new releases prompted me to explore alternative operating systems. For years, I turned primarily to Microsoft for my computing needs both in my personal life and for the businesses I've been involved with. In recent years Linux has emerged as a viable alternative to Microsoft for all my computing needs, be it an enterprise server or personal desktop. The Linux alternative and the strategies for migrating from Windows to Linux will be the subject of this column.

As you explore Linux as an alternative to your existing infrastructure, the reasons to migrate to Linux should be business driven, not ideological. Anti-Microsoft sentiment seems to be growing, but at best it should be only a catalyst for researching alternatives. The simple fact is that Microsoft does offer a complete set of tools to address most organizations' needs. In spite of this, a responsible manager should pursue the best value (features plus performance divided by cost). It's a Microsoft world, but Linux is a popular option that offers good value - and hopefully the competition that will drive improvements in both operating systems.

Despite Linux's growing popularity, there's quite a gap to bridge, especially as Microsoft enjoys a comfortable lead in market share and coffers overflowing with cash. Paradoxically, at no time in computing history has a community development effort or an alternative operating system posed such a looming threat to an industry leader as Linux now does to Microsoft.

Linux vs Commercial Operating Systems
The business case for Linux involves many factors: improving your overall TCO (total cost of ownership), adding functionality, and improving stability, productivity, and overall knowledge worker efficiency. This is a tall order for an operating system that some have described as a hacker science project. As you embark on your personal investigation you'll probably have to consider the following issues:

  • Software licensing costs: One of the strongest selling points associated with Linux is the Open Source/Free Software model. Software and operating systems are community property that can be downloaded for free from the Internet. However, this is simply the tip of the iceberg, a "free ticket" to a great show. Once you figure the cost savings for administration and benefits from increased productivity, you'll realize this is simply a low barrier to entry and only a fraction of the real value of Linux.
  • Reduced administration: In the typical office, whether it's an SMB (small-to-medium business) or an enterprise, the cumulative costs for administrators, help desks, and the tools needed to support these functions can become costly. Linux can be remotely administered with a very secure set of open source tools, enabling administrators to fix problems even as users continue uninterrupted in their everyday work.
  • Improved stability and productivity: Linux is truly a multiuser/multitasking environment with good resistance to crashes, and it allows users to resist the need to reboot. It is not uncommon for computer users to go weeks or months without a reboot. Imagine how much time you may be losing already; one reboot a day per computer-dependent worker adds up fast. Especially if that reboot is accompanied by an unnecessary break (a cup of coffee and a "bull session" while my computer is rebooting may take several minutes). If that one reboot costs a company five minutes per employee per day, multiply that by the number of employees, and losses in productivity are substantial.
  • Customizability and open source: With commercial operating systems you often end up paying for unutilized or underutilized features. Most Windows users today utilize only a small fraction of the features and software made available to them when they buy the Microsoft Office suite and the operating system. Implementing an open system like Linux enables you to choose to install thousands of applications or just the applications you need, with little or no licensing costs.

Biggest Objections to Using Linux
At one time the number of reasonable objections to Linux outweighed the benefits of migration for many organizations. That day has passed. Linux is now a realistic and responsible solution for more companies, schools, and government organizations than ever. Despite this fact there are several popular objections to Linux on the desktop, to which I offer short rebuttals. These points may help reassure those of you who are on the cusp of making a commitment, or at least beginning to research Linux as an alternative to your current IT solutions.

  • Forking: Many IT managers fear forking or diverging Linux development that could result in incompatible vendor-specific versions. This is a legitimate concern. However, major hardware vendors like HP, IBM, and Dell are working in the open source community to drive standards that will ensure an enterprise-class operating system. The most notable initiative to date is the United Linux project (www.unitedlinux.com), which is a collaborative effort for standardization of a Linux platform that can be used as the base for Linux vendors to then apply value-added services and software. The success of this project will help ensure that fragmentation and divergence are avoided, and that a consistent high-quality product continues to emerge.
  • Lack of familiar applications: Windows has enjoyed an 18-year history as a desktop operating system with over a million applications available to the Windows user. However, Linux development is making exponential gains in valid productivity applications. Additionally, there are some very good ways to migrate your existing Windows applications to Linux while preserving your investment. In particular Win4Lin (www.win4lin.com), a Windows operating system integration program, allows you to integrate existing Windows operating systems and applications into your Linux operating system. This solution has an 18-year history on SCO Unix and over the past few years has been migrated to Linux. Fortune 500 companies like Oracle, AT&T, and McDonald's have already adopted this technology.
  • Support: Since the operating system is developed in the general community, it's unclear to many where they could turn for support. IBM, the world's largest software services company, is fully committed to supporting Linux on the enterprise, SMB, and community levels. However, for the SMB the best support options are available from the Linux distribution vendors, whose main form of revenue will be generated by supporting the Linux operating system and applications. Red Hat has emerged as the leader in this field, and German software distributor SuSE is following close behind. Additionally, a rapidly expanding number of regional VARs (value-added resellers) have the ability to help businesses execute a dependable technology plan.
  • Lack of Linux expertise: Many organizations have spent so much time and money in training their staff on Windows or other operating systems and applications that the learning curve is their biggest factor for not moving. This is probably the most legitimate of all objections - until they look at their five-year planning horizon and consider the risks of a subscription-based Microsoft upgrade path. Retraining costs are significant in any move from one operating system to another, but system upgrades every two years from Microsoft require some training as well. Decision makers need to carefully weigh these costs when deciding between moving to a new operating system or staying with the old. With a well-defined phase-in plan it's possible to minimize retraining costs over time while realizing the benefits of a Linux operating environment.

Hopefully you now have some confidence in why you should be investigating Linux as a desktop alternative. The next step is to do some firsthand research and see the operating system in action.

The Linux Desktop from a User's Point of View
Most people who first see the Linux desktop are surprised by its similarity to the environments that they are already using. The most popular environments are the KDE (www.kde.org) and GNOME (www.gnome.org) desktop environments. Despite the stigma Linux has of being a "geek's" operating system, there are many community projects aimed specifically at making the Linux operating system friendly to the novice Linux user and those who may be quite experienced using other operating systems, like Windows.

The desktop environments shipped with most major Linux distributions are very similar to those that you're accustomed to in Windows. Many have a button in the left-hand bottom corner were you can "start" gaining access to applications or find control panels to adjust settings. The desktop in most popular environments has the familiar trash can and a file browser as on the Windows and Mac operating systems. The familiar network neighborhood icon is absent by default, but there are a number of open source projects that provide the same functionality for Linux. Nearly all of these crossover networking solutions are based on the Samba project (www.samba.org), which can communicate with Microsoft's file- and printer-sharing protocol, SMB (Server Message Block).

Now that you understand the similarities between the Linux and Windows desktop environments, let's look at the differences. The first is the workspace guide. This allows you to create virtual desktops, where applications can be stuck on each desktop like sticky notes. Rather than minimizing applications to view the desktop, users can simply stick a few applications on each desktop and navigate their virtual workspaces via a grid on the taskbar. However, it's as simple to minimize applications as in Windows.

Another useful feature is the design of the Linux GUI (graphical user interface). It utilizes the X Windows system, which is not necessarily tied to a physical piece of hardware like the traditional PC. It's actually a virtual display that can be displayed to a local computer monitor or forwarded to another screen connected via a network - perhaps one of the most useful and underutilized features of Linux. System administrators and help desk personnel can take over an X Session remotely, fix problems they can duplicate, and diagnose firsthand the problems that may exist with a system - all from the comfort of their support desk. This is the same precept as PC Anywhere and the popular GoToMyPC.com. Additionally, this redisplay can be securely tunneled via the SSH protocol to avoid network snooping.

We can take this solution one step further. Because Linux is a multiuser operating system able to serve many accounts from one PC or server, identical or customized desktops could be redisplayed to dumb terminals or other PCs. With a little know-how you could eliminate PCs that require individual updates and constant hardware upgrades. The life of the PC on the desktop could be extended by years and upgrades could be made in the data center rather than at each user's desk. At the very least it's an ideal solution for call centers and the like, where terminals are shared between users on various shifts. The idea of centralized computing is an old idea from the days of the mainframe. It may not be the ideal solution for everyone but it has merit for many situations. One popular Microsoft-compatible solution provider, Citrix (www.citrix.com), has demonstrated the value of this model, though their core competence is reducing bandwidth and delivering Windows terminals over latent networks. Terminal services is a useful solution for many problems; I discuss this idea in detail in future articles.

The fact is that out-of-the-box or freshly installed, most Linux desktop distributions mimic the popular commercial desktop operating systems. However, the Linux desktop is infinitely configurable, and polling many users on the configuration of their desktop may result in drastically different results.

Figure 1 shows Windows 2000 Professional running Microsoft Word, Excel, Windows Media Player, and AOL Instant Messenger. Figure 2 shows Red Hat Linux 8.0 with the GNOME Desktop Environment running Open Office Writer (word processor) and Open Office Math (spreadsheet), GAIM (instant messaging client), Win4Lin (Windows on Linux solution), and Evolution (a Microsoft Outlook-style e-mail client).

Practical Solutions: Easy Linux Test Drive
In the coming months we'll discuss tactics for migrating to Linux from a Windows environment. Many organizations today already have Linux running in the back rooms and data centers where the most technical employees work. However, many decision makers have never seen the operating system in action. In the interest of improving your firsthand knowledge as well as to give you insight into how the operating system compares to your current operating system, I would like to offer a practical tip on how to go about your investigation of Linux. Software distribution companies like Red Hat (www.redhat.com), SuSE (www.suse.com), and Mandrake (www.mandrakesoft.com) all offer affordable desktop solutions for less than $100 (the cost is for the installation media, documentation, and support - not software royalties). However, it will be necessary to dedicate a computer for running Linux. I would instead suggest a less-committed solution.

As a first step I suggest a distribution that can be run from a bootable CD and can be running on your desktop in less than a minute. Many free projects are available for download. Many of these distributions are developed to solve certain problems. The advantage is often that the file systems are read-only, so they can't be altered in a hacking attempt. Practical applications for this technology are for simple tamper-proof firewalls, unsophisticated Web servers, rescue disks, operating systems for thin-client computing applications, and live demos.

There are varying reasons to use an operating system that can be run from a CD. There are many practical uses for this type of configuration, as I've mentioned, but the reason most germane to this conversation is that this is an easy way for users to see a demonstration of the Linux operating system. Listed below are some other great uses for this type of distribution:

  • Rescue disk: Quite a few excellent rescue disk solutions are freely available for download - a functioning operating system with network access is only a reboot away. Since file systems can be read by the Linux operating system, files can be edited, drivers can be downloaded, and the knowledge base of your manufacturer can be surfed, despite the desktop computer's broken state.
  • Product demo CD: Imagine walking into a customer's office, popping a CD into his desktop computer, and demonstrating your product on his machine. Using a bootable CD with the appropriate software is a good way for you to make a high-impact impression.
  • Diskless workstations: One of the easiest ways to repurpose old PCs is to create diskless workstations. These workstations could be early-generation Pentium class PCs, damaged machines with software or hard disk problems, or computers with low customization requirements. Virtually any PC that has a CD drive and working processor could be put into low maintenance service by simply setting the computer to boot from a CD (a variety of solutions exist in this space). Take a look at workers who simply need word processing, e-mail, and Web access. Imagine never having to fix a user-caused error again. Updates to the system could be as easy as changing a CD. Once again, this may not be the solution for everyone but it's definitely food for thought.

Your First Linux Operating System: KNOPPIX
For the purposes of this discussion, I recommend a distribution called KNOPPIX (www.knopper.net/knoppix), a more full-featured bootable Linux distribution. This operating system is a good way for anyone without firsthand Linux knowledge to look at the features available today in most desktop Linux distributions. The best part about Knoppix is that it can be downloaded via Windows and burned onto a CD for use on your existing PCs. By default the Knoppix operating system will not write to your hard drive or damage your existing operating system. However, it is possible to alter your hard drive or to run your monitor at a resolution outside the manufacturer's recommendations if you pass certain commands to the system. As always, you should read the documentation and proceed at your own risk.

How It Works
Knoppix is a one-CD, live file system that can be customized as a rescue system, security scanner, or platform for presentations and demos, or as a full-featured portable production platform with tools like KOffice and StarOffice. The underlying GNU/Linux base system is modified to boot non-interactively into a working X Window and KDE configuration, with all auto-detectable devices configured, ready to start applications. Because of the on-the-fly compression of KNOPPIX the whole file system can contain up to 2GB of software on the typical CD. Best of all, KNOPPIX can be used without altering your existing desktop computer.

What Applications Are Included with Knoppix?
What's truly amazing is the sheer number of applications available from this one CD - over 900 installed packages in all. This collection of applications is a good representative sample of those that would be available to you free of charge when you start to utilize Linux as a desktop computing system.

  • Konqueror file and Web browser: This very functional browser is as close to a Linux equivalent of Microsoft Explorer as there is; it works as a system file browser and as a Web browser. Additionally, its ability to anti-alias fonts makes the look as smooth and rich as any Web browser on the market, and better than most.
  • Mozilla Web browser: Knoppix 3.1 includes Mozilla 1.0. I selected Mozilla from the Internet Apps menu and browsed to some sites. In contrast to Konqueror, it doesn't have anti-aliased text.
  • OpenOffice.org: The OpenOffice.org source code initially includes the technology that Sun Microsystems has been developing for future versions of their StarOffice software, an alternative to Microsoft Office.
  • K Office: An open source office suite comparable to Microsoft Office.
  • X Multimedia System (xmms): A popular multimedia software package developed for Unix operating systems running X11, it can play back MP3, AVI, MPEGs, and many other multimedia formats.
  • Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP): A fully featured graphic editor that rivals that of the Adobe family of graphical editors.
  • Network connectivity tools: Internet connection software kppp (an Internet dialer), pppoeconf (DSL), and isdn-config.
  • Utilities for data recovery and system repairs: Even some for other operating systems' networks, and security analysis tools for network administrators.

It's truly impressive how much you can do in this OS without making any changes to your existing computing environment. It is an excellent way for you to get a taste of Linux for no more investment than your time. In my tests I dropped the CD into my CD drive and rebooted on three different x86 systems. In every test KNOPPIX recognized the hardware on my systems and booted in about one minute. Additionally, I was able to save and edit files on my hard drive and in one case repair a system that no longer functioned properly.

Figure 3 shows the KNOPPIX operating system running Open Office, Konqueror (as a Web browser), Konqueror (as a file browser), KMail (a mail client), and GAIM (Instant Messenger). The machine used for the demo is a 425MHz AMD K6-2 processor with 64MB of RAM. Notice the hard drive icons on the desktop. These hard drive partitions are both damaged, but Knoppix still booted making it possible to retrieve critical files.

Are You Ready to Migrate?
It's understandable that you may not be loading Linux on every desktop in your organization tomorrow. However, good IT managers would be remiss in their responsibilities if they weren't at least doing the appropriate research into viable alternatives to their existing infrastructure. I also agree that the jury is still out on the long-term future of Linux; it's much less popular than Microsoft. However, early adopters of the technology may well find that they are regarded as visionaries and applauded for improving their computing environments while contributing to their organizations' bottom line.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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