Living (and dying) with Linux in the workplace

A Windows power user gives Linux a fair trial as her primary operating system at work. Does the open-source OS have what it takes to make her switch for good?

Are you looking for a Windows alternative for serious office work? Many people are starting to wonder about their non-Microsoft operating system options, especially given Windows Vista's hefty hardware demands, upgrade costs and license restrictions. Scot Finnie, Computerworld's online editorial director, has already examined using Mac OS X in the workplace.

Now, I take a hard look at Linux by using an enterprise distribution exclusively at work. I'm not simply playing with a test machine; I've been using Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10+ day in, day out to do my job as Computerworld's online managing editor.

After several weeks, I can report that desktop Linux does appear ready for no-frills home users. But things get a bit more dicey for corporate users like me.

If your needs end with e-mail, simple (non-IE-optimized) Web browsing, word processing and spreadsheets, desktop Linux distros, such as SUSE and Ubuntu, are ready for you today -- even in the workplace. At the other end, if you're a high-end technologist, you've probably got the interest, aptitude and ability to get around nonsupport obstacles and dive deep in the guts of your kernel.

But if you're somewhere in between, well, as one of Computerworld's Web developers cautioned me, there's a very steep learning curve in going beyond basic Linux use. If you're a Windows power user who needs applications beyond the basic office and communication tools, if you've been trained on them, customized them, written scripts for them and come to depend on them in your day-to-day work, you're going miss them.

In addition, if you've got a handheld, portable media player or other mobile device, chances are it's not as plug-and-play on Linux as it is with Windows.

That's not a knock on Linux as a piece of software. It's a problem of market share and clout. There's no company with Microsoft's marketing muscle cajoling major software firms, such as Adobe and Intuit, to support the platform.

To be fair, at least there's a possibility of hacking an application when it won't officially run on Linux, which is less often the case with Windows. And that might be a fun challenge at home. But I usually don't want to hack an application at the office. I need to get my work done.

First impressions


After years on Windows XP, it's kind of fun to see something new on my desktop. And after months of Microsoft hype, I'm happy to be checking out something that's not Vista.

My volunteer "IT admin," Computerworld's online special projects editor Joyce Carpenter, reports that the SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop setup was a snap (see Setup, part 1: Installation, below, and Setup, part 2: Getting connected on the next page).

Setup, part 1: Installation

As volunteer admin, my job was to install SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop on an old Dell machine we had kicking around the office, and to connect it to our office infrastructure.

Installation is easy: Just put in the CD, pick a few things, agree to a few things, click "next" a lot of times, put in the next CDs, one after the other, and voila! It's done.

A few specifics:

  • I selected GNOME for the desktop interface. In my mind, I associate KDE with a more advanced user than the one I'll be supporting, although if there ever were a reason for that association it is now lost in the mists of a very poor memory.
  • I tried to give "root" an easy password -- this is only a test, after all. But it would have none of that. I had to go with eight characters that do not form a word but do include numerals.
  • I made two user accounts, one for me (jcarpenter) and one for Sharon (smachlis), giving each a strong password.
  • I accepted the default networking configuration. This included an enabled firewall and a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol-enabled network card, which was discovered without any problem.
  • I downloaded the latest updates and enabled automatic updates, which was the only change from the defaults for the entire installation process.

-- Joyce Carpenter  

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