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Managing Linux Desktops

The future is getting brighter

I often speak about the Linux desktop as a viable business solution and analyze how and why it works, what's handy and where it's progressing but maybe one point gets lost and that's the manageability of the Linux desktop, not only locally but remotely and centrally.

When looking at Novell's latest offering recently, the Novell Linux Desktop 9 (NLD) (www.novell.com/products/desktop/), I realized that they have a product that meets the simple needs of the business PC user.

Now, what constitutes "simple needs" you may ask?

Well, I define it as core business applications, office suite, web browser and e-mail. And those are not just criteria that Novell can satisfy. There are other limited-function highly available solutions available.

Unlike me, many PC users use their PCs just to do their job; it's not the center of their job. Think law offices, call centers and centers processing insurance claims.

These people aren't doing the equivalent of electronic heart surgery. They are just using their PCs to facilitate the flow of information or to supplement their work environment like the typewriter and banks of steel filing cabinets once did.

However, someone has to keep these sophisticated "typewriters" working and in the large enterprise it's an expensive undertaking, especially since the people who use them aren't "techies."

Ironically, these are the self same people, the ones who use only a few core applications, who might best be served by a Linux desktop. These are the same people who the systems administrators and help desk personnel are supposed to support. Supporting them with a low-cost, high-availability operating system that's easily duplicated and managed is very attractive proposition.

And if the jobs these people do don't change much, forced vendor upgrades that tax hardware resources may not be necessary and IT budgets may benefit.

Here is Linux' chance to shine by taking advantage of the tools that are being honed for server management.

Remote Access

In a large installation having to run from PC to PC, popping in CDs full of operating system upgrades is time-consuming. In this so-called "Sneakernet" approach, help desk personnel navigate through a sea of hundreds or thousands cubicles to find the PC that's malfunctioning.

Now if those same people could use their travel time to troubleshoot the PC remotely instead, they would be more productive. Help desk personnel could save time by using the tools on their own PC to administer the company's desktops. Many administrators could stop keeping a case full of CDs up-to-date and handy.

There are two easy ways to access a Linux desktop remotely. The first is by using ssh (www.openssh.com/) to login to the system console securely and remotely, make changes and do most administrative tasks in a highly secure low-bandwidth way. This can even be done while the system is in use without disturbing the user.

The second way to connect is by transporting the PC's graphical environment over the LAN to the administrator's desktop via the network-transparent features of X. That way the admin can see what the user sees and troubleshoot.

Either one of these methods is useful and practical and can save a lot of time when compared to sitting at an end-users' desk interrupting them while doing triage and making rudimentary repairs.

Binary Package Management

Binaries are the programs the Linux desktop run. They are distributed in either .rpm or .deb packages. Both formats rely on a system-wide database to check to see that the software is properly installed and to find out what other software (usually libraries) the software package depends on. Updating or installing a program in RPM or Debian format is rather simple and can be done by copying the files locally and using the rpm or dpkg commands to update the software.

More and more companies are working on ways to push these updates to the end user. Both Red Hat and Novell offer services designed to push updates to a large number of PCs or servers.

The Red Hat Network (https://rhn.redhat.com/) was designed specifically for Red Hat products and was one of the earliest commercial Linux updates services to group systems into profiles and push out updates via either a hosted update service or a proxy synchronized with RHN, which limits the bandwidth dedicated to updates. Novell is also going down this path with ZENworks (www.novell.com/products/zenworks/), which is evolving into a robust Linux resource management tool.

Lock Down

One way to ensure that software keeps functioning correctly is to make sure that no unauthorized changes occur in the system. That's where Linux' user and group hierarchy and file permissions start to play an important role. In Linux every user belongs to a group and each file has a set of permissions that let a user read, write or execute a file. By letting users only read and execute a given set of applications and by not letting them install software on the system gives system administrators a finer degree of control over the system and protects the user account from being compromised.

User Templates

Linux can create a template for a new user. A system administrator can create a template of the ideal user environment using the /etc/skel directory. skel is short for skeleton and provides the "bones" of a new user account. A user template can be created that includes the default settings on the user desktop. The template facility and its quick and consistent installs are huge time-savers.

Using a skeleton is one of many ways to implement user templates. There are a number of evolving commercial applications available like Aduva OnStage (www.aduva.com), which focuses on deploying and updating Linux systems. In this model, installation is done via a kick-start agent that looks at a predefined user template and automates the installs. This way, throughout its life the system gets updates and configurations from a central software and configuration repository.

Summary

Linux on the desktop still has a way to go for pervasive use in the enterprise but with an ever-expanding application set and increased use its future is getting brighter. In fact, knowing the underlying management capabilities of Linux might make it even more appealing as an alternative or at least a supplement to your enterprise desktop computing infrastructure. Noting that both Windows and Linux, despite their corporate backing and architecture, still need to be managed and finding ways to do it cost effectively should be every organization's goal.

SIDEBAR

Novell Linux Desktop 9

Novell Linux Desktop 9 (NLD) is Novell's first Novell-branded Linux release. Based on the popular SuSE Linux distribution, Novell made NLD9 synch with SuSE versioning to indicate that while the product is new it's not immature.

NLD is Novell's first corporate desktop offering though it's probably more directly aimed at the Unix desktop market, the low-hanging fruit of the Linux desktop migration just like Unix servers have been.

If you are looking to replace your Microsoft Windows desktop wholesale, I don't think this is the product - yet.

However, if you want a stable, well-backed, technically sound product that can provide core computing functions like e-mail, web browsing and productivity software, NLD does the job.

NLD shows no clear allegiance to either the Gnome or KDE desktop environment and doesn't default to one or the other during install, even though Novell added Ximian, the Gnome desktop concern, to its fold in 2003. Instead Novell offers both desktop environments.

It also includes updates similar to the familiar Windows Update done through Internet Explorer and a Web interface. Novell does it through its ZENworks Linux Management Update Manager (formerly Ximian's Red Carpet). Updates can be scheduled and be done automatically.

The biggest difference I see between SuSE and NLD is that NLD is a simplified version of SuSE Professional without the familiar SuSE green. NLD is themed in blue and Novell Red.

One useful bit I found in NLD was a network applet on the Gnome toolbar that let me switch between wired and wireless connections and launch the network configuration dialogue through Yast2.

Another addition was Firefox as a launcher on my Gnome toolbar, suggesting to me that Novell will offer Firefox as its next-generation default web browser.

Novell Linux desktop may not be the ideal solution for the Linux hobbyist or power user (for those in that category I recommend Novell SuSE Linux Professional). But if you want a manageable desktop for core applications I recommend trying Novell's free evaluation of NLD and see if it addresses your needs (www.novell.com/products/desktop/eval.html).

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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