Making desktop Linux work for business

The business case for Linux on the desktop is increasingly compelling, so how do you get the right options for your business?

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Today's IT managers face tough choices. PCs that run fine today have an uncertain upgrade path, now that Microsoft has chosen to discontinue Windows XP.

Upgrade costs associated with Vista, coupled with the ever-escalating cost of application licenses, make switching to desktop Linux an increasingly attractive option.

For many businesses, however, it's difficult to know where to begin. The Linux market is broad and thriving, with myriad options to choose from. Most organisations will want to phase in Linux gradually, which in many cases will mean supporting a heterogeneous computing environment for the first time. As a result, it can be hard to predict where software incompatibilities might affect critical business processes.

Fortunately, the future of Linux on the business desktop has never been brighter. Bolstered by contributions from some of the biggest names in IT, today's Linux offers a rich, highly functional user experience to compete with any proprietary OS. With appropriate planning, integrating a limited number of Linux desktops into your existing environment can be undertaken with minimal difficulty, paving the way for a broader migration tomorrow.

Finding the right match for your business

If you do deploy Linux, choosing a distribution is one of the most important decisions you will make. Don't be tempted to mix distributions haphasardly. Each flavor of Linux bundles its own version of the kernel with a unique blend of code libraries, utilities, and applications. Each also offers its own style of system configuration and management. Because of this, introducing more than one or two distinct distributions into a given environment is usually asking for trouble.

For business use, a distribution backed by commercial support is the best choice. Even if you have Linux experience in-house, a single unforeseen crisis can cause IT costs to skyrocket when you have nowhere to call for help.

For this reason, set realistic expectations early in the decision-making process: Linux isn't going to be free. It will, however, be cheap. The software itself is free, which means that the traditional costs associated with regular upgrade cycles are virtually eliminated. It's easier to evaluate the success of a Linux migration if you focus on long-term goals.

The traditional "big two" Linux vendors, Red Hat and Novell, each offer a desktop Linux distribution backed by commercial support. Either is suitable for large-scale enterprise use, and indeed, very large organisations may want to limit their search to these two choices.

If you can afford to be flexible, however, the desktop Linux market includes a number of lesser-known options -- including Linspire, Mandriva, Ubuntu, and Xandros, among others -- that specialise in delivering a high-quality user experience and are similarly backed by commercial support. The exact best fit will largely be a matter of personal taste.

Will it run with Linux?

One way Linux distributions distinguish themselves is through ease of installation and configuration on a variety of hardware. Overall, hardware support in modern Linux systems is very good and continues to improve. In fact, Linux may actually offer better support for some legacy hardware than newer proprietary operating systems such as Windows Vista.

Occasionally, though, a particular hardware vendor may be reluctant to release specifications or Linux drivers, leaving you with limited or no support under Linux. Typical trouble areas include certain graphics cards and wireless networking hardware, as well as laptop power-management features such as suspend and hibernate.

Remember, also, to consider hardware beyond the PC itself. If your organisation makes use of networked printers, scanners, fax servers, VPN gateways, or other workgroup-centered hardware, you'll need to make sure that Linux drivers are available for these devices, too. Your Linux vendor should be able to answer any questions, but be prepared for occasional bad news.

Inconsistent hardware support can make deploying Linux on a wide scale a challenge. Unfortunately, you can't expect any single Linux distribution to behave identically on every PC. Some hardware configurations will always exhibit quirks or glitches that aren't present on others.

Standardising hardware is your best chance for a smooth installation experience, but this isn't always easy. Even if you identify an ideal PC configuration today, will you still be able to purchase the same machine next year, when your company grows?

Fortunately, an increasing number of hardware vendors are offering systems that are certified for use with Linux, or even ship with Linux pre-installed. Dell offers several Ubuntu Linux systems, for example, while HP and Lenovo favour Suse. If you can purchase Linux-certified hardware consistently, it can save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

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