Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Olivier Huynh Van, Derek Weeks, Stackify Blog, Automic Blog, Elizabeth White

Related Topics: Linux Containers

Linux Containers: Article

Applications Are the Key

A look into the future of the Linux desktop

In this month's column, Dr. Migration takes a look at the Linux desktop from an applications point of view. Although widespread adoption of desktop Linux isn't a reality yet, the prognosis is good.

I recently wrote an article for LinuxWorld.com on a user-oriented Linux distribution coined UserLinux. In the article I discussed what the ideal noncommercial desktop Linux distribution would look like (www.linuxworld.com/story/37872.htm). The emphasis is on identifying features that would be attractive to the mass PC-user market. Bruce Perens, Linux evangelist, former leader of the Debian project (www.debian.org), and harbinger for UserLinux (www.userlinux.com), also added his comments, and this sparked a lively debate on what would constitute a distribution with mass appeal. This debate gave me a good idea of what PC users want from a Linux distribution, and it led me to reflect more on where desktop Linux is today and what needs to happen for its continued growth and success. There is simply no commercial product that compares to Linux's low-cost entry point and the variety of applications that can be added at no additional charge. Hence my favorite saying, "Linux is just a free ticket to a spectacular show." Linux on its own is great, but the supporting cast of Free/Libre Open Source Software, paired with the stable, extensible OS, makes it a powerful and affordable alternative to existing commercial solutions.

It's without debate that the idea of a free, community Linux desktop platform, under widespread use, is appealing to a huge contingent of PC users. There is an ongoing and heated discussion about what needs to happen for desktop Linux to become appealing to the mass market. Two areas of contention seem to arise. The first is usability, and the second is application availability.

Platform Usability
The Linux desktop has to evolve in the area of usability, and specifically configuration. Configuration includes hardware detection, which I must say has improved dramatically since I started using Linux as a desktop platform in the mid 1990s. But it still needs to improve; hopefully this will happen with hardware vendor support in addition to a strong community effort. Additionally, I have issues with docking and undocking my laptop, as I know many fellow users do. It's gotten to the point where I simply use my laptop and its own screen rather than my monitor because of the issues I've had with switching displays. I also find it easiest to reboot when I dock and redock so that the laptop and wireless card devices (versus the docking station input devices and network) can be rediscovered. I'm sure there are tools and procedures to make this all happen, but they aren't automatic or executable with a single button push. These features were available and worked flawlessly for me as a Windows 2000 laptop user. In this area, Linux still needs further work for the opera-ting system to see widespread acceptance, especially since earlier adopters are often the toughest customers.

Distribution vendors are solving usability problems and including this valuable work with their packaged versions of Linux. Also, despite widespread hardware vendor support for Linux, the community is still addressing driver support. I don't think it will be long before these hurdles are overcome. It is in the vested interest of companies like Mandrake, Sun, and Novell/ SUSE to solve these problems if they're truly going to be desktop Linux vendors (in my mind, desktop PCs and laptops are equally important). If there comes a day when these aren't inhibitors to desktop adoption of Linux, then what inhibitors will remain? The applications.

Linux Distributions and 'Shovelware'
Very few people go about looking for their ideal operating system. They don't often say, "I really need a cool operating system." Typically, they want to do something. That something may be accessing the Web for news or to do some shopping, sending e-mail to their friends, or writing a letter on a word processor. All these applications are of a task-based nature; they all do something.

The following are the most commonly needed applications, based on our readers' feedback.

  • E-mail applications
  • Web browser
  • Word processor
  • Games
  • Simple spreadsheets
  • Personal finance applications
  • Multimedia players to listen to music and to view movies (either downloaded or via DVD)
PC users new to Linux may be overwhelmed by their choices for meeting these needs. Also, once they make their choices they may have a learning curve to overcome, or in the case of e-mail, a migration issue.

The needs seem simple enough, so I looked at what applications are available, starting with the existing Linux installations in my lab. These include Mandrake 9.2, Red Hat 9.0, and Knoppix. Each comes with a cadre of applications that my friend Greg refers to as "Shovelware," in other words, the applications that the distribution providers shovel onto the distribution as a value add. No offense intended to the application makers or the distributions - my friend's point is simply this: Why do we need three or more browsers, five e-mail clients, and various other applications we won't use? Conversely, it's nice to have them preinstalled so that there are no snafus in the installation. Vendors can test for compatibilities and resolve conflicts between applications before users run into problems.

The ideal situation is the custom solution - the distribution can include a mechanism for the Linux user to select core applications and go from there, at installation time and throughout the lifetime of the installation. Today, many distributions already include many configuration options in their installer. For many years, Red Hat offered a workstation and server installation option depending on the user's need, but still there was a common template used by all users depending on the computer's intended use. Or you could pick your applications, but to do this you would be picking through thousands of applications - a daunting task. I've decided it's easier to just install the whole kitchen sink rather than risk forgetting something. If a new application comes out, I need to go through another process of downloading and installing from the Internet because the CD from my Linux distribution becomes outdated. This break in continuity, or switching to a second interface for updates, adds one more level of complexity. Red Hat has done a good job with their Red Hat Network (http://rhn.redhat.com), which supplies network updates for their Enterprise Linux offerings, however this is only available for Red Hat's Enterprise Linux. Lindows (www.lindows.com) seems to have gotten this formula right with their Click-N-Run solution for adding applications to their base distribution. The problem with this model is simply that it's distribution dependent. Ximian's Red Carpet has broadened its horizons a bit as well, but they also have selected a few select distros to support. The ideal solution, which I realize presents some hurdles, is a distro-independent updater and installation, backed commercially, so that user demand could dictate product direction.

Filling the Gaps
The problem I keep coming up against is the bridging of the gaps. It's an issue because many more people would make the move to Linux if they didn't have to leave those few critical applications behind. The ones that come to mind are the financial applications like Quicken and TurboTax, and the PIM/CRM applications like GoldMine, ACT!, and Outlook. Many organizations have invested heavily in proprietary applications to handle their business systems, and these applications run exclusively on Windows and would require significant investment to port to Linux. Despite this existing Windows application quandary, there are a couple of ways to fill those gaps and migrate to Linux. The first is to run the applications in a hosted environment. Another is to run the application locally in an emulator, or virtual machine.

Hosted Environments to Supplement the Linux Desktop
Some users of Windows applications choose to run their critical applications on a Windows Terminal Server. This solution allows the applications to be run on Windows server and then redisplayed over the network to their Linux PCs. The solution allows them to run the applications as they were intended but makes them portable. Linux users can connect to these Windows Terminal Servers using the rdesktop client (www.rdesktop.org). This isn't a bad idea but can be expensive. I think a better solution in this case is to run Windows on Linux through NeTraverse Terminal Server (www.netraverse.com/products/wts/), which allows the applications to be hosted on the server and then redisplayed using open source technology like X.11 or VNC. This solution still requires the Windows client licenses but gets the applications to run on the Linux platform. Also, it's the first step to weaning yourself from the Windows server platform.

Hosted applications are a double-sided coin. The upside is that the applications can be executed as the manufacturer intended and can be redisplayed to any network-connected PC. In addition, these applications can be administered centrally, which is advantageous to those users in a multi-user environment. In the corporate environment this solution makes sense, but unless the home user could purchase hosted applications through an application service provider that could be redisplayed to their PC, it seems impractical in the home-user environment.

Virtual Machines and Emulation
The other way to run Windows applications on the Linux desktop PC is by creating a situation in which the Windows applications can execute locally. I have spoken about this topic in the past and divided the solutions into the following three categories: virtualization, emulation, and integration.

Virtualization allows the installation of the whole Windows OS as a guest on the Linux OS. The solution that does this most completely is VMWare (www.vmware.com). The VMWare model provides a virtual computer to install the Windows operating system within. 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 considerably more expensive than equally suitable solutions. It also requires a fully licensed copy of Windows to execute. However, the product has significant merit. VMWare is available for a retail price of $299 USD.

Other solutions provide an emulated Windows API so that Windows applications can be executed on Linux without the need for the native operating system (in this case Windows). CodeWeavers (www.codeweavers.com) offers a small set of productivity applications via a 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 the method is very small and the configuration of applications to run natively on Linux can be challenging. Often the user does not enjoy the same fidelity of experience as compared to running natively or running a copy of Windows in the Linux environment.

Integration is the ability for Linux to comanage file systems, process, and other resources with Windows. The solution that best does this is Win4Lin (www.win4lin.com), which allows users to run Windows as an application on the Linux 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, like VMware, require a Windows license and Windows 95/98/ME media to install and run the software. Win4Lin is available for $89.99 USD.

As Linux adoption grows, these applications will have a lesser role in desktop Linux, but at this turning point in desktop computing they all provide important bridging technology. For some niche and legacy applications that do not warrant investment in porting, however, these solutions are a cost-effective way to ensure the applications are available to Linux users.

Distribution-Independent Application Installer
Now, are you ready for the killer app for Linux? It's the distribution- independent application installer. It doesn't exist today, but it should. So far there are a number of semi-solutions to one big problem. Most are distribution specific. Red Hat has the Red Hat Network, Lindows has the Click-N-Run warehouse, and Ximian tries to cater to a handful of distributions, including SUSE, Mandrake, and Red Hat. No one has solved the problem of taking a platform (Linux) and finding a vendor-neutral supplier to provide applications, especially for the home user of Linux. I think the technology exists, but it has yet to be executed in a way that allows it to proliferate into a wide audience of Linux desktop adopters. I believe this type of technology could accelerate Linux desktop adoption at a rate faster than that of the Linux server.

The following examples of common installation and application problems indicate the need for this type of service.

  • Browser plug-ins: This is my pet peeve. I'm always installing a new version of Linux on one of my lab machines. And, invariably, I am forced to go out and find the Java and Shockwave plug-ins for my browser. However, I am not locked into one browser. I am a fan of Mozilla; I always have been. Back in the early days of Netscape, I beta tested version .49B of Netscape and have used it ever since, though I have strayed into and out of Internet Explorer, always appreciating Netscape when I return. I also like to play with the variants of Mozilla, including Galeon and Firebird. When I do, what I would love is to just go to one page and download all the plug-ins I might need.
  • MP3, DVD, and movie playback: In some distributions this is downright painful. For example, in Red Hat I have MPlayer installed. It can play a few types of multimedia files, but technically you could be in violation of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) if you try to use the community-provided methods for playing media you have already legally purchased. I commend Lindows, who has licensed their DVD player to allow users to legally play DVDs, solving both the legal and installation issues.
  • Library updates: Just as in Windows, there needs to be a common set of libraries used by applications. On Windows the problem is easily solved because Microsoft ships the libraries with the operating system. In the realm of the Linux OS, the vendors pick libraries a la carte and may choose to include only a common set of libraries in the public domain. If someone could include the right engine, and not just the engine to figure out what libraries are needed, and then give the user one-stop shopping to download, that would be great.
These are but a few examples of how a one-stop shopping solution for Linux would play well. The ability to find aggregated applications from a trusted source would overcome one of the final hurdles for widespread Linux adoption on the desktop.

Conclusion
In my mind the future of the Linux desktop is assured. It will become a widespread reality, with many of the factors contributing to success being financial. Other factors will include the introduction of high-quality applications that fit the needs of a large corps of PC users. For this to become a reality, a few critical events need to occur. More production-grade applications have to become available. These applications need to be able to be easily installed, as well as easy to use. This is no small feat given the need for supporting libraries, compilers, and the like to be universally available across Linux distributions. Additionally, these applications must reach a broad level of adoption where feedback and community support can ensure that they will be around for a considerable length of time. Many users, especially business users, will want to know that they will not be left in the cold before they make a commitment to Linux.

I like to think of this column as a look into the future rather than a call to action, as I think the call is being heeded. I would love to reflect back on these thoughts in the not-too-distant future and be able to say this was a foreshadowing of things to come.

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.

Comments (2) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
Chris Hubbell 02/24/04 02:06:36 PM EST

The other issue that will trip you on converting your friends who aren't clearly set on Windows is all of the web sites out there which expect Internet Explorer, and the sites which stream video (Quicktime, RealPlayer, etc.).

Yes, you can have your browser fake its OS in some cases if you are an advanced user. Yes, you can get beta-grade video plugins for the web (which thus far crash Mozilla almost as often as they work).

In the end you need to be careful about who you convert. A non-savvy user may attribute these faults to Linux inadequacies (it's a matter of perspective).

I think we still have many bridges to cross before desktop Linux is a real threat to Windows for the average user, but I look forward to that day with unchecked anticipation.

Ernest Rogers 02/20/04 12:52:42 AM EST

Something to consider.
Last year I convinced no less than a dozen of my friends to finally purchase their first PC. None of them would be able to give a reason for wanting to have Windows installed on their new system, other than that is what they see on most computers. If these same friends were given a choice of paying for windows and its installation, or just paying to have a much cheaper alternative installed, including some powerfull applications that they don't have to pay extra for, my bet would be they chose the less expensive option, especially after shelling out $400 - $500 bucks just for hardware.
Unfortunately, the store where I was able to get an affordable PC for them only offered Windows pre-installed, at almost full price.

@ThingsExpo Stories
Things are changing so quickly in IoT that it would take a wizard to predict which ecosystem will gain the most traction. In order for IoT to reach its potential, smart devices must be able to work together. Today, there are a slew of interoperability standards being promoted by big names to make this happen: HomeKit, Brillo and Alljoyn. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Adam Justice, vice president and general manager of Grid Connect, will review what happens when smart devices don’t work togethe...
SYS-CON Events announced today that SoftLayer, an IBM Company, has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York, New York. SoftLayer, an IBM Company, provides cloud infrastructure as a service from a growing number of data centers and network points of presence around the world. SoftLayer’s customers range from Web startups to global enterprises.
SYS-CON Events announced today that CA Technologies has been named “Platinum Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and the 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. CA Technologies helps customers succeed in a future where every business – from apparel to energy – is being rewritten by software. From ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Technologic Systems Inc., an embedded systems solutions company, will exhibit at SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Technologic Systems is an embedded systems company with headquarters in Fountain Hills, Arizona. They have been in business for 32 years, helping more than 8,000 OEM customers and building over a hundred COTS products that have never been discontinued. Technologic Systems’ pr...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Auditwerx will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Auditwerx specializes in SOC 1, SOC 2, and SOC 3 attestation services throughout the U.S. and Canada. As a division of Carr, Riggs & Ingram (CRI), one of the top 20 largest CPA firms nationally, you can expect the resources, skills, and experience of a much larger firm combined with the accessibility and attent...
SYS-CON Events announced today that HTBase will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. HTBase (Gartner 2016 Cool Vendor) delivers a Composable IT infrastructure solution architected for agility and increased efficiency. It turns compute, storage, and fabric into fluid pools of resources that are easily composed and re-composed to meet each application’s needs. With HTBase, companies can quickly prov...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Loom Systems will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Founded in 2015, Loom Systems delivers an advanced AI solution to predict and prevent problems in the digital business. Loom stands alone in the industry as an AI analysis platform requiring no prior math knowledge from operators, leveraging the existing staff to succeed in the digital era. With offices in S...
Buzzword alert: Microservices and IoT at a DevOps conference? What could possibly go wrong? In this Power Panel at DevOps Summit, moderated by Jason Bloomberg, the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise and president of Intellyx, panelists peeled away the buzz and discuss the important architectural principles behind implementing IoT solutions for the enterprise. As remote IoT devices and sensors become increasingly intelligent, they become part of our distributed cloud enviro...
SYS-CON Events announced today that T-Mobile will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. As America's Un-carrier, T-Mobile US, Inc., is redefining the way consumers and businesses buy wireless services through leading product and service innovation. The Company's advanced nationwide 4G LTE network delivers outstanding wireless experiences to 67.4 million customers who are unwilling to compromise on ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Infranics will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Since 2000, Infranics has developed SysMaster Suite, which is required for the stable and efficient management of ICT infrastructure. The ICT management solution developed and provided by Infranics continues to add intelligence to the ICT infrastructure through the IMC (Infra Management Cycle) based on mathemat...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Interoute, owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017 at the Javits Center in New York, New York. Interoute is the owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform which encompasses 12 data centers, 14 virtual data centers and 31 colocation centers, with connections to 195 add...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Cloudistics, an on-premises cloud computing company, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Cloudistics delivers a complete public cloud experience with composable on-premises infrastructures to medium and large enterprises. Its software-defined technology natively converges network, storage, compute, virtualization, and management into a ...
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Eric Lachapelle, CEO of the Professional Evaluation and Certification Board (PECB), will provide an overview of various initiatives to certifiy the security of connected devices and future trends in ensuring public trust of IoT. Eric Lachapelle is the Chief Executive Officer of the Professional Evaluation and Certification Board (PECB), an international certification body. His role is to help companies and individuals to achieve professional, accredited and worldw...
In his General Session at 16th Cloud Expo, David Shacochis, host of The Hybrid IT Files podcast and Vice President at CenturyLink, investigated three key trends of the “gigabit economy" though the story of a Fortune 500 communications company in transformation. Narrating how multi-modal hybrid IT, service automation, and agile delivery all intersect, he will cover the role of storytelling and empathy in achieving strategic alignment between the enterprise and its information technology.
Microservices are a very exciting architectural approach that many organizations are looking to as a way to accelerate innovation. Microservices promise to allow teams to move away from monolithic "ball of mud" systems, but the reality is that, in the vast majority of organizations, different projects and technologies will continue to be developed at different speeds. How to handle the dependencies between these disparate systems with different iteration cycles? Consider the "canoncial problem" ...
The Internet of Things is clearly many things: data collection and analytics, wearables, Smart Grids and Smart Cities, the Industrial Internet, and more. Cool platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Intel's Galileo and Edison, and a diverse world of sensors are making the IoT a great toy box for developers in all these areas. In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists discussed what things are the most important, which will have the most profound e...
Keeping pace with advancements in software delivery processes and tooling is taxing even for the most proficient organizations. Point tools, platforms, open source and the increasing adoption of private and public cloud services requires strong engineering rigor - all in the face of developer demands to use the tools of choice. As Agile has settled in as a mainstream practice, now DevOps has emerged as the next wave to improve software delivery speed and output. To make DevOps work, organization...
My team embarked on building a data lake for our sales and marketing data to better understand customer journeys. This required building a hybrid data pipeline to connect our cloud CRM with the new Hadoop Data Lake. One challenge is that IT was not in a position to provide support until we proved value and marketing did not have the experience, so we embarked on the journey ourselves within the product marketing team for our line of business within Progress. In his session at @BigDataExpo, Sum...
Web Real-Time Communication APIs have quickly revolutionized what browsers are capable of. In addition to video and audio streams, we can now bi-directionally send arbitrary data over WebRTC's PeerConnection Data Channels. With the advent of Progressive Web Apps and new hardware APIs such as WebBluetooh and WebUSB, we can finally enable users to stitch together the Internet of Things directly from their browsers while communicating privately and securely in a decentralized way.
DevOps is often described as a combination of technology and culture. Without both, DevOps isn't complete. However, applying the culture to outdated technology is a recipe for disaster; as response times grow and connections between teams are delayed by technology, the culture will die. A Nutanix Enterprise Cloud has many benefits that provide the needed base for a true DevOps paradigm.