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Desktop Migration

The second wave of Linux

In this issue, Dr. Migration introduces Linux on the desktop – the second wave of Linux. As Linux becomes more popular and vendors pledge support, we move closer to victory for the Linux community and the desktop PC user.

IT vendors, including Sun, HP, and IBM, have pledged support and have begun to formulate strategies for integration of Linux with their server product offerings. Software makers Oracle, PeopleSoft, and Novell have also announced Linux as a supported or soon to be supported platform. However, this is only half the battle. As Linux gains popularity on the server it's also making gains, albeit small, on the desktop. Success in this "second wave of Linux" would be the ultimate victory for the Linux community and desktop PC user. It would drive serious competition in the desktop space, bringing improvements in Linux while pressuring Microsoft to make similar improvements to keep its position as the desktop operating system market leader.

The two inhibitors preventing Linux popularity on the desktop are applications and ease of use. For the past 20 years Microsoft and Windows ISVs have developed a plethora of applications for Windows. Linux, on the other hand, has a relatively small crop of good applications and quite a few growing projects (www.sourceforge.net). Ease of use is also improving as companies like Lindows (www.lindows.com), Xandros (xandros), and Lycoris (lycoris.com) offer novice-targeted Linux PCs with their Linux solutions preinstalled.

Remote Administration, Virus Protection, and Change Control

The reason desktop Linux makes sense in many cases has less to do with applications and more to do with administration. Linux desktops have many advantageous features making Linux a scalable enterprise solution. For example, Linux can be administered remotely over a network with a very secure set of tools. Administrators who invest in PC Anywhere or GoToMyPC.com to take control of Windows computers remotely may find a cost-effective alternative in the secure Linux remote access solution, Secure Shell. Secure Shell offers encrypted access to the Linux command line or the ability to forward the graphical X.11 protocol over an encrypted tunnel to remotely complete any task over even the lowest-bandwidth networks. For those who want a GUI approach, AT&T's Virtual Network Computing (VNC) server (www.uk.research.att.com/vnc) and client can be used to access computers "via the wire." Being able to troubleshoot most problems from one central IT help desk and directly diagnosing and correcting PC problems over the network can save considerable amounts of time in comparison with the phone calls and relayed information typical in today's help desk support model.

Besides remote administration, Linux provides a great solution for virus protection, change control, and computer security. The Linux system is set up with strong rules and policies allowing access to programs and file systems based on users and groups. Administrators can use these policies to ensure that necessary programs remain installed and to prevent programs from being installed. Keep in mind that viruses are simply programs that cause malicious effects. In the case of Windows, users often "contract" a virus through email, then pass that e-mail to other users within the network in a similar way. Preventing programs from being installed in a user account can limit propagation of viruses. Because Linux is not the dominant desktop operating system and is a less noticeable target, it has fewer incidences of viruses; because of its low profile, the scope of damage can easily be limited to the user level with Linux. The ability of the operating system to be "locked down" makes it extremely difficult to exploit the operating system.

Application Support

Linux lacks some of the applications that Windows users have grown to rely on, like drag-and-drop CD burning. Conversely, those Linux programs that do fit certain desktop computing needs are pretty robust.

They have achieved such great success in a short period of time because the open source model facilitates the creation of applications developed by a global community that easily crosses geographic and language barriers while offering a feature set common to a international cadre of users.

The Linux Office Desktop
A cross section of many companies will probably show a large number of computer users with fairly basic needs, especially in those organizations that are not information technology companies. Operating under the basic assumption that most users need an office suite, e-mail, and Web browsing for most applications, you can take advantage of a number of solutions. Nearly all of these applications can be found for free, and in the open source community support contracts can be supplied by trusted IT behemoths like Sun and IBM.

I believe the following to be among the best options for full-featured productivity applications available today.

Office Suite: Sun's StarOffice
StarOffice offers a bundled word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software (similar to PowerPoint), calculator, HTML editor, database, and drawing program (see Figure 1). Their solution supports most Microsoft formats as well as their own. These formats also include XML, which may someday replace proprietary formats altogether. Additionally, Sun has made the code open source (www.openoffice.org), which makes it easier for developers to collaborate on plug-ins to extend its capabilities. The ability to export files as PDFs allows documents to remain portable and to have formatting preserved across platforms.

PIM and E-Mail: Ximian Evolution
Outlook Express and Outlook 2000 dominate the field of e-mail software clients. Ximian (www.ximian.com) has successfully released an Outlook-style e-mail client for Linux that offers e-mail (POP, IMAP), calendaring, and a contact manager in one package. The solution even enables users to easily synch Palm Pilot PDAs. Ximian has done an impressive job offering the corporate email user a powerful Linux solution that will be familiar to those users who have come to rely on Microsoft's Outlook. Additionally, they offer the Ximian Connector, which can access Microsoft Exchange servers so that Linux users can collaborate with Windows users on the same messaging server.

Browsers: Mozilla and Opera
Netscape has released the source code for its popular browser to the open source community, which has spawned a number of projects, including Mozilla, (www.mozilla.org) the leading Linux Web browser. The look, feel, and supporting mail, news, and Web development applications are familiar to those who have used Netscape Communicator Suite. One of Mozilla's most appealing features is tabbased browsing, which allows multiple documents to be opened in one instance of the browser. For users who are used to having to tab through instances of Internet Explorer to find previously opened pages, this is a significant improvement in Web surfing.

The commercial browser Opera by Opera Software (www.opera.com) has been in production since 1995. Opera's claim to fame is its small resource requirements and lightning-fast speed. Additionally, Opera has some features that are very unique and innovative, including its Multiple Document Interface (MDI), which displays multiple Web pages on one desktop rather than starting multiple instances of the browser and cluttering your desktop, much like Mozilla's tab-based browser. Opera offers a free, advertising-supported browser as well as a commercial version. Both are fast and stable and are backed by a very capable support organization.

Stopgap Application Solutions:
Emulation, Virtualization, and Integration

The key for Linux desktop success will be a viable migration path for legacy applications, like billing and accounting systems, that are specific to each individual enterprise. Enterprise client applications like PeopleSoft, ERP, SAS, and others may be the bigger hurdles for enterprise users taking advantage of Linux. PeopleSoft recently announced that their products will soon run on Linux (most likely the server side first and the client side second). These applications need a migration path until there is full Linux client support. The most straightforward way to do this is to investigate ways to run Windows applications via a guest operating system on Linux or redisplay those Windows applications on Linux from a terminal server.

There are three categories of Windows hosting software for Linux:
1.  Emulation: Emulation allows the installation of the whole Windows OS as a guest on the Linux OS. The solution that offers the most complete implementation is VMware. The VMware model provides a virtual computer to install the Windows operating system in. This solution is very popular in the server world for consolidating servers, but in the desktop world it may be overkill. It does require a fairly powerful PC to operate at reasonable speeds and is somewhat more expensive than alternative solutions. It also requires a fully licensed copy of Windows to execute, but the product has significant merit. VMware is available at www.vmware.com for a retail price of $299 USD.
2.  Virtualization: This actually provides a virtual Windows API so that Windows applications can be executed on Linux without the need for the native operating system (in this case Windows). This virtualization is limited in the application support and is a product of the open source community. One company, CodeWeavers (www.codeweavers.com), does a fairly good job of offering a small set of productivity applications via this technology, known as Wine (www.winehq.org). The advantages are that there's no need for a Windows license and that the files live locally on one file system. The disadvantages are that the number of applications supported via this method is very small, and configuring applications to run natively on Linux can be challenging.
3.  Integration: Integration is the ability for Linux to comanage file systems, processes, and other resources with Windows. The best solution is Win4Lin (www.win4lin.com), which allows users to run Windows as an application on the Windows desktop. This solution is a good Linux citizen as it runs with minimal resource needs and adheres to the management systems available in Linux. It does, however, require a Windows license and Windows 95/98/ME media to install and run the software. Win4Lin is available at www.netraverse.com for $89.99 USD.

Redisplay: Thin-Client Computing for Desktop PC Users
This method of Windows and Linux integration involves Windows applications executed on a central server (such as Microsoft Terminal Server) and then redisplayed to the Linux desktop.

Two companies that provide excellent solutions for remote display are Citrix (www.citrix.com) and Tarantella (www.tarantella.com). Both offer the ability to redisplay the host Microsoft operating system to almost any network-connected appliance, including PCs and handhelds. This stopgap approach for migrating Windows to Linux would offer a way to continue to preserve existing technology investments without leaving users high and dry without their legacy applications. Technically, almost any application that is not heavily dependent on data streams like multimedia could be redisplayed this way, but in migrating it's important to realize the benefits of the Linux OS and to reserve this approach for those applications that don't have a workable Linux counterpart.

Migration Strategy
For those who want to take a phased approach to Linux on the desktop, the previously mentioned redisplay and guest OS solutions are key in a "bridging strategy" in which existing Windows applications remain in service as new Linux applications fill other computing needs. In determining which application to deploy, it's important to assess the needs of the organizational users. Second, evaluate the Linux applications that meet these needs. Applications most likely to be candidates for Linux replacements are desktop productivity applications that have commercial support from vendors who have a vested interest in their success. For most organizations these probably include office suites and e-mail, and likely applications would include Sun's StarOffice or Open Office and Ximian's Evolution for e-mail. Then find the places where Windows investments could continue on in a hosted Windows environment via the "bridging" solutions. Keep in mind that you will want to consider in your cost analysis the following factors: software licensing, retraining, and deployment costs. The next step – and an important one – is to make your migration plan known to your user base before proceeding. Getting user buy-in will generate an easier migration.

No matter what your computing situation, there probably exists an enterpriseclass Linux solution for a large portion of your computing needs. There are many reasons why an IT manager should consider these solutions. First, Linux may be the very best technology available to you. Second, it's good policy to evaluate alternatives to your current IT environment. Smart buyers compare features, read consumer reports, and evaluate washing machines, cars, and hopefully computer operating systems, always looking for the best value. Third, a minimal commitment to Linux would show your current vendor that you're not a captive customer without alternatives to their product. Another advantage to exploring alternative solutions is that when sales representatives visit you, showing an interest in a viable alternative to their product may offer you leverage in getting the best deal possible. Whatever your company's situation, it's a good practice to do your homework and find IT solutions that best meet your company's business needs and processes. After assessing your business needs (including TCO), both flexibility and adaptability should be paramount in your choice of desktop operating systems.

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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