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Guide to Linux on the Business Desktop Part 2 of 3

Adventures in laptop shopping

In Part 1 of this series (LWM Vol. 2, issue 4), Dr. Migration analyzed some common Linux distributions with the goal of helping you figure out which is right for you. This month, he takes a look at some of the major vendors' Linux desktop offerings and begins to explore the Linux laptop.

I have been a loyal consumer of desktop PCs, laptops, and servers from one vendor for almost 10 years. As I started my search for Linux PC manufacturers, I looked for a vendor to supply me with not only a Linux solution, but one that they could support with the same level of competence that I've come to rely on for commercial operating systems like Windows (I realize that this may not be a good thing for those who have received Windows support).

I also thought about those of you who read LinuxWorld Magazine and send me correspondence regarding problems running Linux - correspondence that indicates that there are sophisticated users who may or may not have a technical aptitude. My indication is that LWM readers are a mobile workforce who rely heavily on PCs, and they don't always have the ability to fix their IT problems without some assistance. With this in mind I tried to find a group of solutions to address these needs. Ideally, you should have reliable supply channels and receive quality technical support, and do so with minimal interruption to your core business - no matter what it is. People ranging from PR representatives to insurance claims processors to tractor suppliers have contacted me for advice on Linux solutions.

Name-Brand PC Manufacturers

Many of the large manufacturers of laptops have been advertising their Linux offerings during sporting events and a variety of other venues. Their apparent intent is to make you aware of Linux as a server offering, not a desktop solution. Linux servers on Intel hardware are without a doubt a robust and cost-effective solution. However, when you try to find a Linux desktop, or harder still, a laptop available from these same manufacturers, you may have quite an adventure. This is disheartening; as they're pushing Linux servers out the door at an increasingly fast pace, their desktop offerings lack the options that many of us would like when purchasing a PC. I know that many of you have bought these companies' products for years and have extra power supplies, docking stations, and possibly even a relationship with their support organizations. However, the ability of large, name-brand manufacturers to service the Linux desktop doesn't meet the standards set for their commercial OS offerings. I find that name-brand PC manufacturers are not supporting Linux on the desktop and laptop at the level at which they support the server. Here's a quick synopsis of where they stand.

Dell

Based on my conversations with Dell representatives, they have little to offer in pre-installed Linux distributions. For large clients they will gladly preload anything you like onto the PCs, as those of you participating in those programs probably already know. The rest of us may want to look at their FreeDOS (www.freedos.org) offering, which is their solution for those of us who don't want Windows installed on our PCs. The Dell n-Series features select popular models from the Dimension, OptiPlex, and Precision desktop lines sold without a Microsoft operating system. Dell has also started to acknowledge the demand for Linux by creating a community site that provides a forum to discuss running Linux on Dell (http://linux.dell.com). There are resources on this Web site for all manners of desktops, laptops, and servers running Linux, but the bottom line seems to be that if you want to run Linux on a Dell desktop or laptop, you may have to supply some of the expertise yourself.

HP

HP has made some recent positive announcements regarding the availability of Linux PCs. In addition, they have published a Linux client matrix (www.hp.com/wwsolutions/linux/products/clients/clientscert.html#compaqlaptops). This details the models that support Linux and the various distributions that are HP supported and Linux-vendor supported, and those models that have future Linux support plans. Of the large name-brand PC manufacturers, your best bet for finding PCs with manufacturer support is HP.

IBM

Despite IBM's commitment to Linux on the server, they have yet to show a significant commitment to a PC or laptop offering, though IBM's ThinkPad series is one of the most popular laptops among the Linux user community. We hope to see some laptop offerings pre-installed with Linux in the future, but at the time of this writing there are none.

Overall, the name-brand PC manufacturers offer great customizable hardware solutions but do not offer a broad range of Linux desktop solutions. If you're not able to provide substantial Linux expertise yourself, you should look at the following Linux-oriented vendors.

Linux-Oriented Vendors

Since the demand for Linux on the desktop is dwarfed by the demand for Windows on the x86 desktop, your ability to find a desktop Linux business solution from a name-brand manufacturer may be limited at best. But for smaller specialty vendors, Linux desktops and laptops are becoming viable. The number of Linux desktop suppliers is too great to mention them all, but notables are Linare (www.linare.com), Microtel's offering available with LindowsOS (www.lindows.com, available from www.walmart.com), and CPU Builders by Stratitec (www.cpubuilders.com, see my review of their Linux PCs in the January issue of LinuxWorld Magazine).

Fortunately, as Linux gains popularity, a growing number of quality vendors cater to the Linux crowd. The problem they're beginning to solve is this: the tech-savvy Linux crowd is often mobile and in need of a laptop solution. None of the name-brand vendors offers a robust solution in this arena. The remainder of this article focuses on helping those who want to convert to Linux find the high-performance products they need.

Desktop Replacement Laptop Vendors

In my quest for a good desktop replacement laptop I had a hard time finding a hearty solution. I did find many offerings, but they seemed to be limited in terms of features and offered very little in the way of support. I was hard pressed to find a range of laptops from one vendor that comprises the entry-level notebook as well as the desktop replacement. And in the age of the superstore that wants to service your every need, I found there's still room for the mom-and-pop shop, or the guy who's big enough to meet your needs but small enough to react to your specific requests. That's why I was pleased to find Lincoln Durey and the folks at EmperorLinux, the offerings from Chander Kant at LinuxCertified, and Tadpole Computers' Sun Java Desktop-equipped Talin.

EmperorLinux - Name-Brand Laptops Optimized for Linux

EmperorLinux (www.emperorlinux.com) offers name-brand laptops rebranded and optimized for Linux. EmperorLinux supplies laptops from Sony, Dell, IBM, and Sharp. They stand behind their products in conjunction with the manufacturer, so your security when buying one of their laptops is doubled. In addition to a guarantee, they offer a dedication to service and a great deal of technical expertise. Their customized Linux kernel (the empkernel), which is optimized for mobile computing, solves many of the problems that Linux laptop users face when installing their first Linux distribution on a laptop (the kernel includes the appropriate patches and drivers for the hardware they ship and solves the problems associated with customizing standard Linux distributions). Extensive testing from EmperorLinux makes it possible for them to provide a high-quality business-class laptop.

LinuxCertified - Training and a Free Laptop

Chander Kant started LinuxCertified (www.linuxcertified.com) to serve the need for Linux training. LinuxCertified initially found that supplying a Linux laptop (refurbished IBM ThinkPad) to their students allowed the students to get more out of the class and provided the opportunity for long-term hands-on experience. The result of this is a very successful training company and a core of Linux laptop customers looking for more in the way of a Linux laptop supplier. Chander decided to investigate producing their own laptops optimized for Linux; now Linux laptops are LinuxCertified's most profitable business. Also, LinuxCertified will be glad to customize your Linux laptop to your specifications or supply other customized installation services.

Tadpole - Engineering Laptops Powered by the Sun Java Desktop System

Unix laptop maker Tadpole (www.tadpolecomputer.com) has recently thrown their hat in the ring with their Talin notebook running Sun's Java Desktop. The makers of the Talin are experienced Unix laptop providers who already have a track record in that market and hope to make a splash as a Linux laptop provider. While they have a relatively limited offering, they do have the expertise in the *nix space that should make them successful.

Product Review: EmperorLinux www.emperorlinux.com

In my search for the ultimate Linux desktop replacement or high-performance laptop, I turned to the folks at EmperorLinux, located in Atlanta, Georgia. EmperorLinux supplied me with their version of the cutting-edge Dell Latitude D800 rebranded by Emperor as the Rhino (www.emperorlinux.com/rhino.php). What's appealing to me is being able to acquire a laptop from a hardware vendor I trust (Dell), without the hassle of installing Linux and finding the appropriate patches and support for all the devices that the laptop is equipped with. EmperorLinux is a unique vendor in the sense that they focus on providing solutions from vendors including Sharp, Dell, IBM, and Sony, but these are tailored to the Linux user market. EmperorLinux has been in business for more than four years, with steady growth as the demand for Linux, and especially Linux laptops, has grown. Lincoln Durey and the crew have built a strong following. Not only does the EmperorLinux staff supply a fully installed Linux laptop complete with patches for power management and support for wireless access, they also offer their own Linux distribution, EmperorLinux (based on Fedora Core 1), which is designed with the mobile Linux user in mind. I was fortunate enough to receive a top-of-the-line laptop with Fedora Linux installed as well as the EmperorLinux Care Package (www.emperorlinux.com/care_package.php). I also asked that it be installed, which you might like if you're migrating from Windows to Linux (after all, I am Dr. Migration).

The configuration was a dual-boot Windows XP and Fedora Core 1 Linux configuration with a FAT32 data partition. This may not seem very Linux-centric, but I felt that if I was going to continue to look at the migration path between operating systems, I would have to continue to compare migration strategies between the two operating systems. Also, as many of you who already own laptops know, the migration of data and applications is going to be the key factor in your Linux success. A bridge between the two operating systems is critical.

My initial experiences with my laptop from EmperorLinux have been positive. The staff took my order and helped me decide which configuration would best serve my needs. Calls to inquire about my laptop were always answered in the first couple of rings, often by EmperorLinux's president Lincoln Durey. After processing my order I received confirmation of the PC and upon shipping I was sent status to track my PC - all the same things I would expect of large PC vendors (even though the tagline at the bottom of the invoice noted that it was generated while the author lay in a hammock listening to MP3s). Finally, when I did receive the laptop, it included a comprehensive guide outlining the steps to take to install and set up my laptop. I thought this was a nice touch, and by following these steps I was up and running in less than 15 minutes. That's a feat for any new PC, let alone one as complex as the Rhino laptop. Overall, my experience so far has been excellent; next month's article will be more detailed as I tweak the laptop for business use. I encourage you to check next month's issue for the update and for more information about EmperorLinux and my adventure with the Rhino.

The Verdict

It's only a matter of time until Linux on the desktop becomes pervasive, but as we wait for that day, there are some very high-quality vendors addressing the current needs of the Linux desktop PC/laptop market.

I use Linux on my laptop every day and am always looking for hardware that can keep up with the optimizations offered by the ever-advancing Linux OS. The vendors highlighted in this article are good places to start when searching for Linux desktops. I encourage you to speak with as many as you can to find the right fit for your company. Also, if you want to find out more about your existing laptop compatibility or other tips and tricks for Linux on the laptop, visit www.linux-laptop.net. Now that I've explored the options for hardware and operating systems, I encourage you to tune in to next month's edition of "Dr. Migration," which will be dedicated to software and the tuning of your desktop Linux setup. I'm very excited to share with you how I'll be tweaking my brand new Emperor Linux Rhino to provide an example of how a former Windows user can migrate to Linux with confidence - and have an experience that's just as good, if not better, than what they experience today.

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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