In-Depth

Desktop Linux: Ready for Prime Time?

Several popular Linux distributions are poised to take on Windows on the corporate desktop.

Talking about Linux is like talking about fine wines. You soon realize there are many different types and purposes for which each variety is best suited. Therefore, you need to be specific when discussing and choosing a particular vintage of Linux.

When someone says Windows, you know they mean Microsoft. When someone says Linux, he could be talking about Red Hat, SuSE or a handful of others. This has always been one of the most confusing issues for those new to Linux.

In This Roundup/Redmond Rating Chart
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Linux is an open source operating system built around the same kernel and a core set of utilities. When it was first introduced in 1991, it thrived in the enthusiast and server markets. Now there are versions designed for kiosk machines, desktops, workstations, servers and everything in between. You can download many other versions—usually free of charge—but they aren't regularly updated or may be tailored for specific applications.

While it's been around for some time, only within the last few years have businesses started considering Linux for the corporate desktop—often in place of Windows XP or other versions of Windows. Any vendor may package and market the operating system, as long they adhere to a set of common guidelines (the General Public License or GPL). Vendors are free to differentiate themselves by making certain utilities available only in their version, adding support and so on, but beneath all that, the core operating system remains the same.

All versions of Linux reviewed here include office software (mostly from OpenOffice.org) and typically come with Adobe Acrobat Reader, a graphics program, at least one Internet browser (Firefox, Mozilla, Konqueror or something similar), mail applications, instant messaging and the ability to communicate with existing Windows networks.

Linux Versus Windows XP

Comparing Linux to Windows XP can be tantamount to heresy in many circles, but it's safe to say the two are increasingly in competition for the corporate desktop.

One of XP's greatest strengths is the availability of a huge number of programs. As Linux becomes more popular, the pendulum could swing in the other direction, but at this point the balance is still heavily in favor of XP once you step outside the core office productivity and communication applications. If you're looking for a reason to justify not switching to Linux, look no further than the number of applications available for both platforms.

On the other hand, if you are considering an open source solution, then you recognize the fact that you probably don't need your corporate users running 3-D games. What you really want them running are those core office productivity and communication applications. If you can get by with just those programs, then there's nothing holding you back from making the switch.

With the Linux desktop running a Server Message Block client, file sharing is seamless in a Windows network. Most of the time, you can choose various security levels. The choices traditionally include local (where passwords and user data are stored on the workstation), NIS (where they're kept on a network server) or LDAP. Local works well with traditional workgroup file sharing, while you should use the other levels in larger networks.

— E.D.

Novell Linux Desktop
A couple of years ago, Novell went on a buying binge, snapping up several Linux companies. Though Novell—best known for its NetWare network operating system—is gung-ho on Linux, Novell Linux Desktop 9 (NLD) has to be one of the most under-publicized products on the market. Just trying to find basic product information can be daunting. Some of this stealth could be because Novell also markets SuSE Linux Professional, and that product is fairly well promoted. Another aspect is that Novell prefers to market NLD directly to its existing customers through licensing agreements.

Built on top of SuSE, both NLD and SuSE have much in common. In fact, the feature sets pretty much mirror each other with NLD acting as a subset of SuSE. During installation, you can choose between the KDE or GNOME desktops. Neither is established as the default. Despite this, Novell strongly encourages using GNOME because it's related to one of the companies they've acquired and all new tools coming from Novell will be created in GNOME. Given this, I'd expect GNOME to become the default desktop for NLD sometime soon.

Installation is remarkably easy, and the system is configured to recognize Server Message Block (SMB) entries on the network by default. This automatically configures the system to interact with any existing Windows networks that you have and saves you quite a bit of configuration. A series of dialogue boxes gives you easy access to the network and to Windows 2000 Server (see Figure 1). Configuring a printer and other elements is equally simple and straightforward and I did not encounter any problems during testing.

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Figure 1. Novell Linux Desktop can recognize a Windows network and make it available by default. (Click image to view larger version.)

At the most recent BrainShare conference, NLD factored heavily into Novell's future plans. It should be no surprise then that NLD's biggest strength is its ability to blend into an existing Novell network and take advantage of features like ZENworks (management through policies) and iFolder (file synchronization). In fact, the biggest disadvantage that I could find with NLD is its lack of decent documentation, although there have recently been some PDFs posted on the Novell Web site.

Choices, Choices

To best compare apples to apples, I focused on the most popular versions of the desktop Linux operating system on the market today. (In a future Redmond Roundup, I'll give similar treatment to server versions.)

In choosing the five variants to examine, I used a number of different methods to determine which were the most popular. Chief among them was looking at what the entry-level Linux+ certification exam from CompTIA expects you to know. They ask about "commercial Linux applications from Novell's SuSE Linux, Red Hat, Mandriva and Turbolinux." Time and time again, these four proved to be the most popular in newsgroups and postings of all types. I added Novell Linux Desktop to that list because it's an extension of SuSE, and it's too new to be included in current certification requirements.

— E.D.

Red Hat Professional Workstation
Red Hat has long been one of the most popular Linux variants in the United States, and with good reason. While most Linux variants include a firewall, it's both installed and enabled by default in Red Hat Professional Workstation. The others that include firewalls may not have them installed by default. This is a huge security concern, and one of the reasons the firewall was enabled by default in the Windows XP SP2. The default installation also includes GNOME for the desktop, OpenOffice, Mozilla for the Web browser, Evolution for e-mail, instant messaging, sound and video applications, games, software development tools and administration tools.

Installation was painless and fairly quick. After rebooting from the default desktop, you have to go through a number of other screens, one of which encourages you to activate Red Hat Network services. You do this by entering an ID number, which gives you access to security patches, bug fixes and software enhancements.

Strangely enough, the ability to share files between Linux and Windows systems wasn't installed by default. This makes it slightly more difficult to plug-and-play into an existing Windows network than other Linux offerings. However, adding it to the workstation later is easy enough by simply opening Package Management and choosing to add the Windows File Server. This installs the Samba client—the open source/free software SMB client that has become the industry standard. In all other Linux variants that I've tried, this feature was always installed by default, and the fact that it is not here is more annoying than anything else.

Once you have Red Hat Professional Workstation fully installed, you use the Kickstart Configurator to configure system variables (see Figure 2). While not as graphical as some similar Linux variants, it's very straightforward and easy to use. The operating system is easy to manage and I encountered no compatibility problems with any Windows network.

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Figure 2. You can use the Kickstart Configurator in Red Hat to configure system variables. (Click image to view larger version.)

SuSE Linux Professional 9.2
Just as Red Hat is one of the most well-known Linux vendors in the United States, SuSE was the leader in Europe prior to being acquired by Novell. With Novell behind it, SuSE Linux Professional (SLP) is now making significant inroads in the United States and increasing its market share.

From a purely aesthetic view, SLP is the most substantial of any of the Linux variants considered here. With 1,000 pages of manuals, installation DVDs and CDs, the box alone weighs about five pounds.

SLP also took the longest to install among this group of five reviewed here. When I was finished, however, the product was ready to use, without any other configuration. You can make configuration changes once you're underway with the YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool) interface. You can also make additional configuration changes in the Control Center by selecting Password & User Account Settings (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3. The security interface of the SuSE Control Center. (Click image to view larger version.)

SLP includes a slew of applications, like the OpenOffice.org suite. It is one of the most complete and easy-to-use implementations of Linux I reviewed. Not only does it include the most documentation, it also has the newest kernel, most up-to-date desktops and excellent configuration tools. I'd highly recommend it for use in a business environment.

Mandriva Linux (formerly Mandrakelinux)
If you've ever had a relative who tells you over and over that they're your favorite uncle, chances are they're not. While Mandriva Linux may not claim to be the "favorite," they do proclaim themselves as the most user-friendly Linux distribution on the market today.

My skepticism about this claim first arose when I encountered the popup installation screen (see Figure 4). The options to install did nothing when I clicked on them. On the other hand, the options to go to its Web site worked fine. Undaunted, I configured the system to boot from the floppy and restarted the machine. All went well until I chose to use empty space on the disk to install the OS, instead of erasing what was already there.

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Figure 4. At first glance, the installation options for Mandrakelinux seem straightforward. (Click image to view larger version.)

After formatting, it turns out there wasn't enough empty space to install Mandriva Linux. This should never be a problem. I would have simply chosen another location; but I couldn't, because there was no way to go to previous screens during the installation routine. I was stuck at a screen telling me there was insufficient disk space, with no way to go back or exit (it's considered customary to put an Exit button on such screens). I ran into similar issues a handful of times, each time having to disconnect the power cord and remove the installation CD.

After finally completing the installation (the "user-friendly" CD prompts all ended with exclamation marks), neither of the graphic interfaces—KDE (Mandriva Linux's default) or GNOME—would come up. I re-installed again and it worked better the second time.

Then the Firstboot utility kicked in and an invitation to join the Mandriva Linux club popped up along with a configuration screen for Mandriva Linux online. After canceling out of that, KDE 3.2 started up, (even though the box states that it includes version 3.3). The popup screen told me about the Mandriva Linux store, Mandriva Linux soft and so on. I just wanted to get to the operating system.

Linux Desktops: How They Stack Up
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The Mandriva Linux Control Center provides an interface for configuring the various operating system components. As with most similar Linux variations, you can get to all the configuration tools here from outside of the Control Center as well. There are several versions of Mandriva Linux available. The PowerPack version includes applications that make it comparable to the other Linux variants.

Overall, I didn't find Mandriva Linux to be that friendly or different from anything else out there. The commercials for Mandriva-this and Mandriva-that, while possibly a diversion for a home user, are annoying to business users.

Turbolinux
Turbolinux, a no-frills version of Linux, comes in with the cheapest price. It doesn't include stickers like SuSE. It doesn't come with books or manuals like all the others. You just get Turbolinux on five CDs (inexplicably numbered 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6—there's no No. 4 disc).

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Figure 5. A number of Turbonlinux tools are available beneath the Control Center. (Click image to view larger version.)

Installation is straightforward. You only have two choices: Standard Install (in which you pick and choose what you want to install) and Turbo Install (which installs everything but the kitchen sink). After choosing Standard Install, you can choose between three sub-types: Standard Workstation (1.8GB), Development Workstation (2.5GB) or Everything (2.9GB). KDE is the default interface.

The Many Flavors of Linux

While we focused on several of the most popular Linux distributions for this Redmond Roundup, there are a number of other Linux variations available:

Debian: One of the truly free adaptations of Linux available, the current "stable" version is 3.0 and you can download it from a number of locations on the Web. The Debian package manager is considered the chief rival to the RPM standard from Red Hat. Find more information at www.debian.org.

Libranet: This is a commercial variation of Debian that simplifies installation and adds applications to make things like common administration tasks easier. Find more information at www.libranet.com.

Linspire: Formerly known as Lindows, this is marketed as a cost-effective replacement for Windows. The current version is 4.5. Find more information at www.linspire.com.

Slackware: This is another easy-to-install iteration. The latest version is 10.1 and you can get it packaged, or download it from the slackware site. Find more information at www.slackware.com.

Yellow Dog: This version of Linux for PowerPC computers is based on the Red Hat distribution. It lets you take advantage of all the features Linux offers and apply them to the Mac. Find more information at www.yellowdoglinux.com.

— E.D.

Turbolinux has some additional configuration tools in its Control Center. The only applications included on the Companion CD (disc 3) are Acrobat Reader and OpenOffice.org. Though there is mention of GNOME 2.4, the desktop is neither installed nor included.

Overall, I was impressed by Turbolinux as a bare-bones Linux variant. The installation was smooth and the simplest of any of this group. It would work well on a kiosk-type machine, but would be limited for use as a business desktop OS.

Run for the Money
Three of the products reviewed here impressed me as suitable for use on a desktop within a business setting: Novell Linux Desktop 9, Red Hat Professional Workstation, and SuSE Linux Professional 9.2. All three offered the ease of use, administrative tools, and the robustness necessary in a corporate environment.

Novell is strongly pushing Linux, and essentially betting the company on its success. The company has been very successful with creating a strong server product and is now trying to carry that success down to the workstation. Because two of the three best offerings (SuSE Linux and Novell Linux Desktop) are from Novell, I believe that Linux will make inroads into corporate desktops this year and give Windows XP an honest run for the market.

More Information

Behind the Kernel
At the heart of any operating system is the kernel. It is the kernel that's responsible for all low-level tasks and all system requests. You must have a kernel in order to have an operating system.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a computer science student at the University of Helsinki, made a kernel that he had written freely available to anyone. The kernel he wrote mirrored many of the features of Unix and Minix, a version of Unix used in many university learning environments.

Torvalds licensed his Linux kernel under a General Public License (GPL). Anyone who obtains a copy of Linux can have access to the source code, and is free to modify and distribute it. They are bound by the GPL license, however, to make any modifications available to the public. In a very real way, the GPL ensures that Linux won't go unsupported or be fractured like Unix because everyone has access to the source code.

Developers and programmers around the world took to the concept of an open source operating system and quickly began writing and adding features. The kernel version numbers quickly rose from the 0.1.1 that was first made available to the 2.6.x versions available today. To this day, Torvalds continues to oversee kernel refinement.

The GPL that governs Linux continues to keep it open source and free of charge. The license essentially states that everyone has the same set of rights and anyone may make modifications, as long as those modifications are made available to all.

— E.D.

More Screenshots

Figure A. The main interface in Red Hat Professional Workstation.
Figure A. The main interface in Red Hat Professional Workstation. (Click image to view larger version.)

Figure B. Adding and removing packages in Red Hat.
Figure B. Adding and removing packages in Red Hat. (Click image to view larger version.)

Figure C. The YaST (Yet Another Startup Tool) interface simplifies SuSE configuration.
Figure C. The YaST (Yet Another Startup Tool) interface simplifies SuSE configuration. (Click image to view larger version.)

Figure D. OpenOffice.org comes with most Linux implementations, including SuSE.
Figure D. OpenOffice.org comes with most Linux implementations, including SuSE. (Click image to view larger version.)

Figure E. The Mandrakelinux Control Center provides an administrative interface to various operating system components, including the KDE interface.
Figure E. The Mandrakelinux Control Center provides an administrative interface to various operating system components, including the KDE interface. (Click image to view larger version.)

Figure F. The primary Turbolinux interface.
Figure F. The primary Turbolinux interface. (Click image to view larger version.)
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