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Guide to Linux on the Business Desktop Part 1

A flexible solution is essential for productivity

I originally planned a series of articles dedicated to building the ultimate Linux desktop for business users. However, after doing some research I changed my mission - this will still be a series of articles dedicated to the Linux desktop for the everyday productivity user, but it won't be a decree of the best business desktop. I think that would be hypocritical; after all, no business or organization is identical to another.

Everyone has different needs, so flexibility in your computing solution is essential. The characteristic that is most appealing to me with regards to Linux is that it's infinitely configurable and, unlike commercial operating systems, it doesn't follow one company's vision of what the end user needs. Instead, each vendor tries to address needs of the marketplace, but with innovative services and different presentations. So rather than dictate what I felt was the ultimate Linux desktop, I decided to share my research and relay which solutions I feel have merit. Because after all, computing isn't about operating systems and applications as much as it is about being productive - whether that is by authoring documents, corresponding through e-mail, or even making movies. The main consideration is for which products, vendors, and solutions best help you accomplish your tasks. With that premise in mind we begin this series.

Planning

Before you start to go about picking a Linux implementation, you need to plan and take inventory. I suggest you make a list of the following factors:
  • Tasks: Which tasks do your desktop users spend the most time doing: authoring office documents, researching via the Web, data entry, or mainly corresponding via e-mail? Also note the applications they use, as you may need to find corresponding applications that run under Linux or cross-platform applications.
  • Current vendors: Which vendors do you already use and have a good relationship with? Do they have a Linux desktop offering? If so, does it complement their other offerings?
  • Support needs: What will your support needs be? Will you require phone support? If so, do you need 24-hour support or limited e-mail support? Do you want to be a do-it-yourselfer, or do you need a resource to support you when you run into trouble? You should verify each distribution's support policies to make sure they can match your expectations.
  • Administration: I think this is an often-overlooked factor when evaluating Linux on the desktop. If you have a geographically diverse workforce you may need to administer, upgrade, and support your company infrastructure locally and remotely. Does the installation of software and supporting virus-ridden computers eat into your IT budget? Gathering anecdotal evidence on what your experience may be like with a Linux desktop is definitely worth your time. You don't want to run into surprises after you install your solution of choice.
  • Cost: Even though Linux is a "free" operating system, there are still costs for media and the seat licensing for updates. You need to understand the popular acronym TCO (total cost of ownership) and not only figure in licensing costs, but also disruptions caused by migration and the time you currently spend upgrading and maintaining machines. Also, the cost of downtime of an unreliable system translates to lost money when users can't do their jobs.
After you've made your list you'll want to keep your needs in mind as you run down the following list of Linux distributions.

The Linux Distribution

When you're picking a distribution for your business you should consider a number of things: not only the user interface, but also vendor support and complementary offerings to the base desktop, especially with regards to applications and system updates.

All distributions are not the same. I started playing around with Linux as a desktop in the mid 1990s with little success. I remember installing numerous distributions and having little luck getting XFree86 to display, usually because of the lack of support for my video card. Since that time desktop Linux has come a long way - specifically in hardware support - thanks to a vigilant community effort and an increasing effort by hardware vendors to support their hardware on Linux. Hardware support is probably going to be less of a concern on your desktop PCs than application availability. The key is figuring out which companies' products are geared toward accommodating your business and your end users' needs.

The following analysis focuses on general observations from my use and experience with each of the most-common Linux distributions, and a short analysis that may help you figure out where to start. Once you make the commitment to Linux it's tough to decide which distribution to use; there are hundreds of commercial and community-driven solutions, all sharing a common thread but with different presentations.

Red Hat

Red Hat (www.redhat.com) has a dependable desktop offering that has a commendable track record of making solid advances with every release. Their Enterprise Linux Workstation is very polished and appropriate for an enterprise environment. They also offer an update service, the Red Hat Network (http://rhn.redhat.com), and if you are already using Red Hat Linux in the data center your IT staff will have a good understanding of how to troubleshoot problems and use the tools included with the desktop version. The biggest detractor to Red Hat's Enterprise Workstation may be Red Hat's conservative desktop strategy. They focus on productivity applications and little on multimedia. The downside to this is that if you receive all your software from Red Hat directly you may miss out on the rapidly increasing number of quality Linux applications that are being released at an incredible pace. Despite this drawback, you can be assured that what you do get is of the highest quality.

Cost: Annual subscription, Basic Edition $179; Standard Edition $299. You can find more information on purchasing at www.redhat.com/apps/commerce.

Fedora

Fedora (http://fedora.redhat.com)is a community project sponsored by Red Hat that offers a more aggressive desktop strategy. With the release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, enterprise software maker Red Hat chose to offer a project for the community while still distributing a commercial version, Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The difference is that Fedora tends to be more aggressive in their software choices and release schedule than Red Hat Enterprise Linux and does not have a support option via Red Hat.

One overlooked advantage or convenience that Red Hat and Fedora bring due to their popularity is there is a lot of software available in binary form for their distributions. To understand why this may be a consideration you should know that there are two common ways to install software in Linux. The first way is to compile it from the application's source code, which requires compilers and tools that turn the code into executable programs. This is not that complicated but can involve multiple steps with certain dependencies. The second way is to receive a binary package, usually in the RPM format. It seems that when searching for binary packages Red Hat or Fedora RPMs are available most often in comparison to other distributions. When you are installing software and not familiar with how to do so under Linux this method has a shorter learning curve.

Cost: Free download.

Sun Java Desktop

The Sun Java Desktop System (wwws.sun.com/software/javadesktopsystem) is a newcomer to the Linux market by enterprise IT stalwart Sun Microsystems (see Figure 1). They offer a very complete package including their award-winning and robust StarOffice Suite, which includes all the components you would expect your office suite to contain. Also, if you're looking for someone who understands the 'NIX desktop market, Sun has been offering Unix workstations for quite some time. I believe you will find that the installation routine is a snap. Their choice of user interface is based on the GNOME (www.gnome.org) desktop environment and is similar to the interface you would see by default in Red Hat or Fedora. Besides the GNOME Desktop and StarOffice suite Sun supplements the standard Linux fare with some Java extras. The Java runtime environment is an integral part of the Java Desktop System. This award-winning cross-platform technology for building desktop applications allows users to run thousands of Java technology-based solutions. Additionally, Sun plans to follow a yearly subscription model so regular updates, albeit at incremental prices, will be available. If you need support and are a small business you may want to identify a local Sun reseller with the experience to support you. Sun is an enterprise company and they are still coming to grips with how to service the small business.

Cost: $50 (or less) through June 2, 2004, includes Sun Star Office. You can get more information at wwws.sun.com/software/javadesktopsystem/get/index.html.

Mandrake

Mandrake (www.mandrakesoft.com) by reputation is known for its ease of use. They offer a number of options in their desktop packages as well as an option of a combination desktop and server (Mandrake ProSuite, www.mandrakesoft.com/products/92/prosuite). They have also recently released a bootable CD version, Mandrake Move (www.mandrakesoft.com/products/mandrakemove), that allows you to run your Linux desktop from a CD and save your settings to a USB storage key. Mandrake also seems to be on the cutting edge with their Mandrake Cooker (www.mandrakesoft.com/labs/cooker), which is a cooperative effort with the Linux community to improve and aggressively provide Linux applications. Mandrake is a good choice for small businesses that want the desktop and server software that integrates well.

Cost: Mandrake PowerPack 9.2 is available for $149 and includes the CDs for the current version as well as the next two releases. For complete information on Mandrake's software options please visit www.mandrakestore.com.

SUSE

In any market there are ways to lead the market as an executor, a service leader, or in SUSE's (www.suse.com) case, as an innovator. Their set of tools, including Yast and SaX2 to configure your Linux desktop, is very good, and their hardware detection for oddities like TV tuner cards is excellent. SUSE has done a first-class job of offering not only a solid desktop product but also useful back-end server products like their award-winning SUSE Openexchange Groupware Server (www.suse.com/us/business/products/openexchange/index.html). If you want to procure both back-office server software and desktop operating systems from one place, SUSE offers a good value in both.

Cost: SUSE LINUX Professional 9.0 costs $79.95 and is available through http://store.suse.com.

Community Linux Distributions

I think I would be negligent if I didn't mention the community and noncommercial distributions. The leaders in this space include the Debian project (www.debian.org) and KNOPPIX (www.knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html), a bootable CD distribution that can boot a computer without the need for a hard drive. However, I lack the space and time to analyze all the resourceful Linux projects available for download. Even though there are often no companies behind these distributions, you can run your business on community noncommercial software and many people do so. The advantage of using noncommercial software is the ability to roll your own brand with only the parts you need, though this will require some expertise.

Summary

The bottom line is that there are lots of productized versions of Linux. There are also plenty of community versions of Linux that work very well and are inventive. The problem is figuring out which version best meets your needs. I advise looking over Distrowatch (www.distrowatch.com), a great site developed to track and share information on Linux distributions. As of the time of this writing Distrowatch boasts more than 200 distributions - many with links to user and media reviews. My list in this article doesn't address all the excellent versions of Linux that are available today, but it's a good guide to help you start looking. I think anecdotal evidence from online testimonials is probably your best bet for figuring out which version might yield the best results.

Tune in for the next installment of this series - I'm planning on searching for vendors who can supply you with the hardware and support for the Linux distribution you choose. Hopefully, we'll find that "Holy Grail" of the open source desktop, the high-performance laptop with manufacturer support for Linux.

Product Review: Xandros Business Edition

For this review the Xandros team supplied me with their soon-to-be-released Xandros Business Desktop. The Xandros Desktop has been one of my favorite Linux distributions for quite some time because of its simplicity and elegance. Xandros' software warehouse, the Xandros Network, lets you easily install current versions of software as well as install updates as they become available. This approach is not only convenient but more practical than that of most distributions because you don't have to sort through the many extra "shovelware" applications to find the few that you need. The initial Xandros install includes a bare minimum of applications, including the Mozilla Web Browser and Mail client as well as StarOffice 7 (www.sun.com/staroffice) as an office suite. It's coming to the point where if you want to edit business documents on Linux, StarOffice is as close to necessary an application as you will find. Xandros' new bundling with StarOffice is sure to be well received by business and personal users alike. For those applications not installed by default I made a quick shopping trip (at no additional cost) to the Xandros Network, where I was able to add the applications I needed, including the Quanta WYSIWYG HTML editor (http://quanta.sourceforge.net), the Scribus Desktop Publishing program (www.scribus.org.uk), and a demo version of NeTraverse's Win4Lin to run my favorite Windows applications on Linux.

Not only does Xandros offer a simple interface and easy software installation, it also has a powerful, feature-rich file manager. The Xandros File Manager has a convenient interface to browse files, add printers, review the network (both Windows and NFS), and burn CDs. This interface is so simple and easy to use that tasks such as adding a printer or accessing a Microsoft Windows file share take less than 30 seconds. Also, for further Windows and Linux integration, the Xandros Desktop includes a copy of the CodeWeavers CrossOver Office and Plugin suites. Using CrossOver Plugin I was able to install the Macromedia Shockwave and Flash players for browsing Web pages with Macromedia-driven animation. Cross-platform integration doesn't stop - Xandros has the ability to authenticate through Windows 2000 Active Directory server and Windows NT PDC authentication, useful features for those in a mixed computing environment.

Though I very much liked Xandros Business Edition I had one complaint: Xandros lacked a PIM (Personal Information Manager), like Microsoft Outlook, with e-mail integration. For Linux users the incumbent favorite application is Ximian's Evolution (www.ximian.com). Also, I didn't go so far as to try to synch my Palm Pilot either, but the KPilot (www.slac.com/pilone/kpilot_home) synch utility was indeed installed. If you are in need of a way to synch KPilot you could synch easily with KOrganizer (http://korganizer.kde.org), the Xandros calendar of choice. Lack of an e-mail-integrated PIM was not a deal breaker, as I had the option of installing Microsoft Outlook via Win4Lin or CodeWeavers CrossOver Office. This allowed me the one Windows application that I critically need. (Note: I think an explanation is due here. I have almost eight years' worth of e-mail archived in Outlook and though there are adequate replacements, the migration of that data is something I never chose to undertake. However, if you have less data, Ximian's Evolution is a good choice for a Linux PIM.)

If you aren't familiar with the Linux desktop and you want a desktop operating system that's easy to use and administer, I highly recommend Xandros Business Edition. I think you'll find that Xandros offers an affordable solution complete with an enterprise-class office suite.

Company Information

Xandros Inc.
www.xandros.com
Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition will be available in March 2004. The price is US $129 and volume discounts are available. For further information, contact [email protected].

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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Most Recent Comments
Matthew Haynes 03/21/04 12:36:06 AM EST

Very good article about a very hot topic. Adoption of Linux on the server side is driven primarily by desire for open architecture and cost reduction. Obvious. The challenge is not in extending the openess to the desktop, but in realizing similar cost reductions. Linux on the desktop is just another "fat client" that requires all the support and maintenance for users that a fat wintel machine requires. The idel Linux desktop consists of a thin client running Linux OS locally , locked down with ony those apps necessary for the job. Additionally it should be inherently secure and remotely manageable. Then and ony then can organizations realize the end-to-end openness and cost savings that is a must in today's business computing environments

Trever Miller 03/19/04 06:14:28 PM EST

Minor issue. The Sun Java Desktop is actually SUSE with some Sun fit and finish added. About 99.9999% of the Sun version is plain old SUSE... which is very good indeed.

I think that this should be mentioned whenever the sun stuff is talked about. It's just SUSE...

Linux__Boy 03/19/04 01:13:24 PM EST

Excellant review - I agreed with most of what was written, however, a minor correction for Xandros : you can download Evolution from the XandrosNetwork, and as he mentionned - if migration gives you a bad case of hives - you can simply run Outlook through the CrossXover Office ... isn't that awesome.
Misses : gui VPN, and Novell Client for proper Login and access to resources - just as it does for MS Networks.

James Dixonj 03/19/04 09:45:07 AM EST

Sigh.... And where's Slackware? I've been using it for my desktop since 1998. It's only the oldest distribution still being produced. Anyway, for those interested:

http://www.slackware.com

Janne 03/18/04 09:27:26 PM EST

You really should bring up Ximian's desktop alongside the other options here. The slant is slightly different (you pick a distribution separately), but the intended audience is very much the business desktop.

Joe 03/18/04 08:27:59 PM EST

Very good article. Xandros will come with the Kontact PIM suite when it upgrades to KDE 3.2.

Mark Hinkle 03/18/04 12:14:38 PM EST

Larry,

Very good point, Mandrake and SuSE both over download versions of their You can download many distos or you can get the full retail version. Once again the choices are great.

Mark

Bob Jones 03/18/04 12:12:53 PM EST

I like this angle for Linux stories, I am very interested in using Linux in my business but it's hard to sift through all the "geek" speak. Nice article.

Best,
Bob

Larry Nguyen 03/16/04 03:13:22 PM EST

Mark, I just want to mention that while users should support Mandrake buying its products, you could also download Mandrake version for nil using its ftp mirrors. Though the box version will have other drivers/modules and applications that are not in the download version.

Thank you for the article.

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