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Linux desktop grows up, eyes corporate users

The open-source OS is looking more like a viable alternative to Windows

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If employees at Backcountry.com want a Windows desktop they'd better have a good excuse, because the standard issue is Linux.

While some might think the backcountry-gear outfitter has been out in the woods a bit too long, the reality is that Linux desktops are starting to show maturity, starting to improve their looks and starting to find a niche behind corporate walls.


"People have to justify Windows to get it, and even then I challenge them a bit," said Dave Jenkins, Backcountry.com's chief technology officer. Nearly 70 per cent of the online retailer's 200 or so desktops are Linux, including multi-user machines stationed in the company's warehouse. Those on Windows desktops typically need it to support Excel and the macros that run only inside that spreadsheet application.

Jenkins' conclusion is that Linux is starting to make its case as a viable alternative to Windows.

Helping that notion are major vendors, including IBM and Sun, who are putting a focus on the Linux desktop. For example, IBM earlier this year released a full Notes client that runs on Linux desktops.

And while no pragmatist in the Linux community will use the word replacement the confidence level is up given Novell's recent release of its desktop SUSE Enterprise Linux 10, the impending release next year of Version 5.0 of Red Hat Inc.'s Linux distribution, and the growing popularity of the easy-to-use Ubuntu distribution and a myriad of other Linux desktop offerings from vendors such as Xandros and SimplyMEPIS.

Another driver may well indeed be the broken promises of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, which ships this month after five years of development and will arrive with only a small percentage of its original marquee features.

"Vista has reopened the buying decision," said Justin Steinman, director of product marketing for Linux and open-source products at Novell. "Customers are saying, 'If I have to do this, what are my other choices?' Our strategy is not to take out Microsoft; our goal is present alternatives to Microsoft."

And Novell thinks it has a strong alternative in SUSE Enterprise Linux 10.

The desktop has an Office suite built off the Open Office project, and it includes the Firefox browser, the Gaim instant messaging client, the Beagle desktop search engine, Xen virtualisation technology, and the Evolution e-mail and calendaring client, which integrates with Microsoft Exchange Server.

Perhaps more important to corporate IT executives, SUSE 10 integrates with Microsoft's Active Directory and includes a management infrastructure built around ZenWorks.

But the most innovative portion may be a 3D animated user interface, called the Spinning Cube, which can be rotated to show up to 365 work spaces or windows. Novell said the innovative interface can be configured to support desktop environments such as call centres.

"We tried to innovate around the edges. We know no one wants to reinvent how they interact with their desktop," Steinman said.

But while observers give Novell and others kudos on their innovations and the evolution of the desktop environment, the decision to choose Linux is complex for even seasoned open-source converts.

"Our desktops are too deeply imbedded in the Microsoft world for us to consider [a Linux] deployment," said David Whiles, director of information systems at Midland Memorial Hospital in Texas. Whiles, who has worked with Linux for 10 years, recently deployed a clustered open-source electronic medical records application. He also runs a Web server and e-mail on Linux, but he said, "we don't have any plans now to deploy Linux on the desktop."

Some observers think the European market will reach out to Linux desktops before US companies start to listen en masse.

"Overseas markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China seem ripe because you might see more of it in government or in specific organisations reacting to mandates," said Dana Gardner, an analyst at Interarbor Solutions LLC. "The economics of [the Linux Desktop] in the U.S. makes more sense in small to medium-size businesses where you can give users a solution or service-based IT with features such as remote administration."

The overseas market is finding encouragement in LiMux, the Linux desktop-migration project undertaken by the government of Munich, Germany. The government plans to have 80 per cent of its desktops converted to a Debian-based Linux by 2008, according to a story in late October by the German news site Heise Online.

The online site quoted Munich Mayor Christine Strobel saying, "I am not a computer geek, but I must admit that it was easy to switch to the new software."

The sites also reported that Munich has migrated 200 desktops and plans to move 14,000 more in the next two years.

And the European market is about to get infused with Linux choices. Last month, Novell announced that four white-box PC manufacturers -- ETegro Technologies, MaxData, Transtec and R Cubed Technologies -- plan to globally distribute laptops preloaded with SuSE 10.

Gardner said that certain situations are ripe for Linux to make inroads. "There is an opportunity for rich Internet applications to become predominant, as people use them in a controlled environment with a browser on a Linux desktop that has full networking capabilities. Certainly, that has a lot of potential and cost efficiencies vs. a full-scale Vista PC," he said.

That is the tack being taken at Backcountry.com, where Jenkins uses the Linux desktop as the platform for an open-source, browser-based ERP system called Interchange. But Jenkins added that there are other factors such as the maturity of Open Office along with the Linux desktop interface, which he said does not look "cartoonish" anymore.

He noted that, in comparison with Windows, his Red Hat and Ubuntu Linux desktops mean fewer licenses to maintain and fewer viruses finding ways into the network via e-mail and Web traffic.

And Linux desktop vendors are improving their wares on a regular basis; for example, Red Hat aims to ship a new version every 24 months.

The next, Red Hat Linux 5.0, will be available early next year. It will include iSCSI network storage support, smart-card integration, clustering and a cluster file system, and Infiniband support.

Other important additions include upgrades to its Security Enhanced Linux and the Red Hat Network support infrastructure and the introduction of stateless Linux, which replicates data to a server to aid in recovery.

Red Hat even has its own directory service that integrates with Active Directory.

"It used to be the two biggest roadblocks [for the Linux desktop] were Active Directory and Exchange support, and those two are gone now," said Gerry Riveros, product marketing manager for client solutions at Red Hat.

Another concern, however, has been application support, both in terms of the number of applications available for the desktop and compatibility with different Linux distributions. While major vendors are helping solve the application support issue, a project going on behind the scenes may be adding just as much fuel to the Linux desktop evolution.

The Portland Project, which began in December 2005 at the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), last month released the first in a series of Linux desktop interfaces and tools aimed at simplifying the process of porting and integrating applications on GNOME and KDE Linux desktops. In essence, developers won't have to develop a version of their applications for each individual Linux distribution.

"End users will never see the Portland tools," said John Cherry, desktop Linux initiative manager at OSDL. The first set of command-line tools ensures that menu items and icons show up in a consistent way on the desktop.

Cherry said the small market penetration of the Linux desktop can make it hard to attract application developers, "but Portland gives them one more reason to port their apps to Linux." And, he said, it should help independent software vendors cut their testing cycles at least by half.

The Portland tools will be in the next commercial distributions of Red Hat, Novell SuSE, Linspire and Debian derivatives, while Xandros already includes them in its tool kit.

The interfaces have been used by Google to port Google Earth to Linux, and RealNetworks is developing its next-generation software based on Portland.

Asked whether all this would add up to the Linux desktop denting Microsoft's stronghold, Cherry said with a laugh, "We just don't go there. I don't really know how to answer that question. All I can say is that the Linux desktop has some really good capabilities now."


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