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Ximian Desktop 2

A leader in corporate Linux desktop interfaces

This summer the Linux desktop management experts at Ximian (www.ximian.com) have released the second incarnation of their popular Ximian desktop. Ximian desktop departs from many Linux desktops in the sense that it's aimed at the corporate desktop user rather than at the developer or PC power user. With that in mind, I evaluated Ximian Desktop from the standpoint of a corporate user and IT manager.

XD2: Desktop Linux for the Enterprise
According to Ximian cofounder Nat Friedman, Ximian's goal in enhancing the Gnome desktop includes four areas.
1.  Ease of use: Users should be able to easily understand the environment, and the interface should be intuitive.
2.  Consistency: The methods for navigating through the operating system should be the same – when using different packages from different open source vendors, this has been troublesome.
3.  Interoperability: Interoperability with file servers and systems, be they Windows, Unix, or Linux, makes it much easier to integrate into a homogeneous network of multiple operating platforms.
4.  Management: Administrative staff should be able to manage the environment for the user, in particular applying updates and keeping configurations up to date.

In my opinion Ximian has made good progress toward attaining their goals. Their efforts have been particularly successful with regards to ease of use and consistency. The look and feel of the XD2 makes perfect sense and the menu hierarchy is intuitive. Active applications are displayed in a bar across the bottom of the screen, which Windows users are used to. The menu bar by default is placed at the top of the screen while a task bar is anchored to the bottom of the screen. This may be a change for some and does take up a little more screen real estate, but after using the system for a couple of days I've grown to like it (see Figure 1).

 

Professional Appearance
One thing that is noticeable about XD2 is that it looks good. The login manager has clean lines and a simple, attractive format. The menus include icons that are consistent and attractive. The desktop wallpaper and screensavers are very polished. While these features may not add to the overall computing productivity, they do inspire confidence that this whole environment has been very well designed and that it's a business-class application with a serious company behind it. Ximian was a very reputable (but small) company, and its becoming a part of IT giant Novell only adds credibility.

Simple Menu Structure
By default the Ximian menu system offers three choices: Programs, System, and Help. The names of the programs are simple and intuitive, announcing programs with their functional names – Word Processor, E-Mail, and Web Browser – rather than OpenOffice Writer, Evolution, and Galeon. These functional names may make switching from Windows to Linux easier since users don't have to learn the names of new applications. My only problem with the menuing is that there are some very long lists in the Accessories menus and in the Games menu. On my 21- inch monitor they filled the whole screen. Ximian informed me that the Games menu was generated by looking at all the games installed by your Linux distribution (in my case Red Hat 9.0) and adding them to the menu. A enterprise user would have the ability to install just what they wanted and therefore this would be a non-issue.

File Manager – Nautilus
One area in which Linux has been lacking is in the functionality of its file manager, which had a deficiency in generally accepted features that Windows Explorer offers. Nautilus, the default file manager in Ximian, has made great strides forward. Not only does Ximian configure file associations, they've also added a thumbnail preview feature for viewing files before opening them (see Figure 2). This is something that Windows users have become used to as a standard feature in Windows Explorer.

 

Also, Nautilus helps address one of my biggest pet peeves – drag-and-drop CD burning, more specifically the lack of it. In Nautilus you can now configure a CD burner and then drag and drop files to the CD easily, much like you'd do with Adaptec's DirectCD for Windows users.

Office Suite – OpenOffice
Ximian has chosen to include OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) preconfigured with some settings to better help users navigate the corporate world. By default Ximian's edition of the OpenOffice suite saves files in the Microsoft Office suite format, making it easy to share files across office suites. Compatibility between OpenOffice and MS Office is pretty good in most documents. Although in more complex documents I have found some formatting issues between office suites, they're rarely terminal. In addition to OpenOffice's ability to save files in a number of editable formats, these files can be exported to PDF format. This particular bonus feature makes sharing formatting across platforms that much easier.

E-Mail Client/PIM – Evolution
As a Microsoft Outlook user (running on Win4Lin) who has become dependent on the integration between my calendar, contact manager, and e-mail, I've found Ximian Evolution to be a good business e-mail application. Not only does it keep all my information in one place, but also the ability to synch to my Palm PDA is very valuable to me. With Evolution you don't need to rely on a thirdparty synchronization add-in because Ximian has chosen to include this popular feature by default. The Summary page is also useful in that it can collate news feeds and weather on one page along with a mail summary, appointments, and tasks. I find this feature to be particularly useful – any Linux user should consider Evolution as a mail client. There is one feature that I had become dependent on with Outlook, the ability to drag-and-drop emails to my tasks and appointments. Evolution lacks this feature. Other than the absence of that one feature, there's little to complain about in the latest version.

Management – Ximian Red Carpet
The management function is designed to allow users to connect to an update server and then download channels that appeal to the individual user needs. Channels are logical groups of software for Linux distributions, the Ximian desktop, and Evolution updates. I must say that this is probably the least intuitive of all the features in XD2, albeit very useful. The process of updating caused me to receive an error with a fault –611. This error was cleared up once I rebooted, but it's still unclear why I received the error. Ximian tells me they are working to give meaningful error codes.

I was impressed by many new features in the latest Red Carpet Client that really enhance the ability to manage a Linux system or even a group of Linux systems. The Red Carpet Client is a system management console not unlike the Windows Update site for Windows users. However, Red Carpet has a more feature-rich interface. It includes an inventory of Installed Software, Available Software, Search, History, and Pending Actions (see Figure 3). I found it very useful to be able to determine what software was available and to not only add/upgrade software but to remove software as well. This is a move forward for Ximian because now you can queue multiple actions at one time and then let it go to work. I liked the ability to search by date or by user for updates and channels that meet my specific needs.

 

Also, by purchasing Red Carpet Enterprise, an IT department can configure its own update server, allowing system administrators to control which updates are available for their user base (see Figure 4).

 

Key features available in Red Carpet include the following:

  • History tab: Shows date and version of software updates.
  • Mount directory: This feature allows you to create you own "channel" where you can download software and have Red Carpet install files for you as a group rather than individually.
  • Connect to a remote system: Red Carpet allows you to connect to a system that is remote and process all updates from your individual console. This feature is of considerable value to those system administrators
  • Permissions-based updates: Using Red Carpet as a tool for controlling access for users to install software is another good feature. For example, end users can have the ability to process updates to installed packages but be restricted from installing new software.

    To the individual desktop user this feature may go largely unappreciated, but to IT managers and system administrators this is a powerful tool that would be worth adding to their toolbox.

    Summary
    Ximian has pioneered what has become the leader in corporate Linux desktop interfaces. The Ximian solution has the potential to penetrate IT departments with a robust and functional desktop computing environment. With all the right tools for corporate desktop users and a good management framework, it's inevitable that Ximian's desktop will be successful. The next step in the evolution (pun intended) would be the ability to migrate or host legacy applications to Linux through a bundled solution or toolset. Ximian, together with open source packages like OpenOffice, provides about 80% of what your average user would need in a fully functioning corporate desktop. Figuring out how to provide that other 20% – how they are going to enable those few essential Windows apps to run within the Ximian environment efficiently and with fidelity – that's the challenge.

    Novell Brings Lawyers, Guns, and Money to the Linux Desktop
    Novell took the Linux world by surprise the week of LinuxWorld Expo in San Francisco this August when they announced their acquisition of Ximian, maker of desktop applications and management systems. After the shock wore off and some of the dust settled it became apparent that Novell was taking Linux seriously. Not only were they taking Linux seriously, but the Linux desktop as well, which has yet to become widely accepted as a corporate platform. Novell had previously announced that they would be adding support for Linux, but many wondered how dedicated they were to the cause, especially with many Linux products competing with existing Novell products. However, after discussions with Novell's newly acquired Ximian team, members stressed that they will simply be a complementary offering to Novell's established product lines. Looking at this from an outsider's viewpoint I would concur that Ximian products will benefit from Novell's well-established channel and a seasoned sales force, an asset that many small Linux software companies either can't afford or can't duplicate. Additionally, Ximian and Novell will be supporters of the GNOME project and the Mono Project, which should help to endear Novell to the open source community. After final analysis you might wonder if other IT giants like IBM and Sun aren't looking at this as a major coup for Novell. It puts an impressive Linux feather in their cap and also expands their product lines, which some have pegged as aging and lackluster. More interestingly, will this kick off a consolidation or feeding frenzy among the big players for control of key desktop properties? The Linux desktop is still up for grabs, but Novell has shown that it wants the prize by throwing its lot in with Ximian. What moves are ahead, and who will make them?

  • 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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    Sridhar 10/18/03 04:12:04 AM EDT

    Mark, Specify the protocol along with the IP address for the proxy i.e. specify http://192.9.44.236 instead of 192.9.44.236

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