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HP Announces Preloaded Linux on Enterprise Desktops

At its BrainShare conference, held last week in Salt Lake City, Novell Inc. strengthened its ties with Hewlett-Packard Co., announcing an agreement with HP in support of its SuSE Enterprise Linux.

HP and Novell already have an agreement that lets HP offer SuSE Linux as a pre-loaded option on its enterprise servers, but later this year, HP will offer SuSE pre-loaded on its business desktops. The result, some analysts speculate, is that momentum could finally be building for desktop Linux.

Over the last twelve months, Novell, a one-time network operating system market champ, has sought to reposition itself as a Linux leader with the purchase of Ximian Inc. and German Linux vendor SuSE AG. In this respect, says Novell spokesperson Bruce Lowry, the agreements with both HP and IBM are additional feathers in the new Novell’s cap.

“Overall, they expand the range of servers [SuSE] goes on, and in the case of HP, where they’re talking about preloading it and shipping it eventually on the enterprise line of desktops and notebooks, that is actually an exclusive sort of agreement,” he confirms.

HP has a similar pre-loading agreement with Red Hat for Linux servers, but not for Linux desktops. The company is believed to be the first prominent systems vendor to ship Linux pre-loaded on business desktops in the United States. HP, IBM, and other vendors have, however, marketed Linux business desktops with some success in Asia-Pacific and other regions.

“We’re the first systems vendor that has an offering that spans the whole enterprise, and it’s always good to be first,” says Efrain Rovira, worldwide director of marketing for HP Linux. “The reason that we’re first is that we’ve heard a number of customers that say, 'You know we want to start kicking the tires of Linux on the desktop, but we don’t want to do it on beta products. We want to do it on shipping products.'”

Although Linux has about a 25 percent share of the server market, analysts say that its presence on the client-side is in the low single-digits. IDC, for example, found that Linux grew its share of the desktop market to 3.2 percent in 2003, outpacing Apple’s Macintosh operating system (with 1.8 percent of desktop share) and second only to Microsoft's Windows franchise. IDC expects that Linux could capture 6 percent of the desktop market by 2007.

HP’s Rovira says his company ships about 100,000 Linux clients each quarter. He believes that initial uptake of Linux business desktops will occur in specific environments, such as call centers, that don’t require a rich client experience. “The customers … that are wanting to kick the tires for the potential deployment of Linux in larger numbers, these are customers that want to use Linux for users that have a limited number of applications, for example call centers, where the users have to have access to Web-based applications, but they also need an e-mail component,” he explains, noting that some researchers, such as IDC, expect shipments of Linux clients to grow rapidly.

Poised to Take Off?

If Linux does take off as a business desktop operating system, it will be thanks in no small part to the support of prominent vendors such as HP, IBM, and Novell, says Charles King, a research director with consultancy The Sageza Group Inc. “Novell’s position as sort of the network operating system of choice, at least traditionally, for the x86 platform makes for a really interesting play, and I think the backing of an HP may give [SuSE on the desktop] some legitimacy beyond some of the other offerings, and may really open the door for Linux.” King adds that Linux is a “good enough” desktop replacement for users who need simple e-mail, Web browsing, or even word-processing capabilities.

Not everyone is convinced that Linux is poised for success on the business desktop, however. “The problem is that the product’s not ready for the desktop yet. The demand is there, and it’s not that it won’t be ready, it’s that it hasn’t crossed that threshold yet,” argues Rob Enderle, a principal analyst with consultancy Enderle Group. In this respect, he says, Linux looks a lot like Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system, circa 1993 or 1994: “When NT came out, despite what Microsoft said, it wasn’t designed for general use desktops or notebook computers, but they had this pitch about NT on every desktop, and the budget overruns for companies that bought into it were enormous.”

Enderle has a reputation as something of a Linux and open-source skeptic, but Scott Handy, vice-president of worldwide Linux strategy for IBM, isn’t convinced that Linux is poised to take off as a business desktop in the near term, either. “We’re certainly watching the desktop space, and we’re seeing customer interest there, albeit not as strong as we’re seeing it on the server,” he says.

That’s not to say that Big Blue doesn’t get a lot of questions about Linux as a viable business desktop, however. “A lot of customers are interested in somehow being able to use Linux [on the desktop] to reduce their TCO, so there’s tremendous amounts of interest in that. But what we’ve found is that their belief that Linux will dramatically reduce their costs may not necessarily be the case,” he confirms, citing studies that show the total cost of a Linux desktop can vary between $5,000 and $7,000 per year.

The issue, says Handy, is that customers need to think about transitioning from fat Windows clients to a server-centric thin-client model if they’re going to successfully reduce their costs. “When you have a fat-client architecture like Microsoft Windows or Office, you have that associated cost of supporting those on hundreds or thousands of desktops. If you move to Linux—if that’s all you do with Open Office—you’ll have the same set of issues,” he argues.

Novell Cozies Up to IBM

Also last week at BrainShare, IBM made good on its promise to purchase $50 million in preferred stock from Novell, and announced a deal that lets it offer SuSE Linux as a pre-loaded option across all of its eServer systems. Big Blue had previously bundled SuSE as a CD with some of its eServer systems. Also last week, IBM announced a similar agreement with Linux vendor Red Hat, this time for its Power-based pSeries and iSeries systems. That deal means that Big Blue now offers Red Hat across all of its eServer systems.

IBM’s Handy says that IBM is distribution- and platform-agnostic when it comes to Linux. “The model we’re getting to is letting customers choose, so the model is a customer can have any hardware and operating system they want,” he confirms. “The design point is that we are distribution-agnostic in our sales and marketing, and we’re creating an environment for our customers that maximizes their choice and flexibility.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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