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?

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If you think that open source means "cheesy or nonexistent UI," I can assure you that my Linux desktop appears designed for business. Sleek and reasonably serious (well, except for the default lizard wallpaper), it offers Windows-like graphical menus to get to files and apps, along with elegant command-line access if you want to control your system via text. My initial thought: This is an operating system for grown-ups. It's hard to imagine a Microsoft-style Clippy animated "helper" popping up here!

The SUSE Linux GNOME desktop. (Click image to see larger view.)

My new Linux station is actually an old Dell Pentium III machine (remember those?) with a 40GB hard drive and less than 800MB RAM that couldn't even come close to running Vista.

In less than an hour, I'm convinced that Linux is indeed a way to get more life out of old hardware. I'd prefer a speedier machine -- who wouldn't? -- but the system is ready to do real, 2007-era work.

SUSE Linux out of the box is bundled with a lot of applications, including a souped-up version of the OpenOffice suite and software to read files in Adobe PDF, Flash and RealMedia formats (notable omission: QuickTime). There are multiple Web browsers and text editors, Novell's Evolution e-mail, calendaring and collaboration package, and other preloaded apps, such as the Gaim instant messaging client.

Unlike many of the applications included on new Windows systems, these don't seem to come with annoying self-launching advertisements, such as the irony-challenged Trend Micro Anti-Spyware pop-up upgrade pleas that plagued my HP system at home. Novell's SUSE also boasts some of the on-screen eye candy corporate users have come to expect, such as a 3D swoosh when a window minimizes.

The basics work well right off the bat. I've got a network connection; I can print; I can surf the Web using one of several included Web browsers. I can easily access files from a network drive and import my Firefox bookmarks. Although we couldn't get a version of Notes for Linux to try out during my first week of testing, I still have access to e-mail and my calendar via the Web.

Several people stop by on my first day working on the new system to ask me, "What's Linux like?" I'm almost embarrassed to say that at first blush, it's a lot like Windows -- but with more free apps and more access to command-line control. Of course, under the hood, there are many more differences.

Web work goes particularly well. I'm primarily a Firefox user on Windows, but also have to use IE in the office because it's the only Windows browser that works properly with our content management system, Interwoven's TeamSite. The good news is that Firefox on Linux works with TeamSite, even though Firefox on Windows does not. (Firefox on Mac also works well.) I'm only missing an ActiveX plug-in for WYSIWYG editing that I rarely use anyway.

I download a test Excel spreadsheet from Google Docs & Spreadsheets into Open Office, and it works flawlessly. After a few hours, I'm convinced this whole test will be a piece of cake and I'll be penning a glowing endorsement of Linux in the workplace, without a single reservation.

I'm wrong.

Setup, part 2: Getting connected

My second task as Sharon's admin was to get the Linux machine integrated with our network and communications tools.

Network file servers: I had some trouble accessing our Windows file servers, but then I found a "Connect to Server" option on the Places menu. From it, I chose "Windows Share," entered the UNC name, clicked "connect," entered my Windows login information (name, domain, password) and was connected.

Printing: Selecting the Applications menu > Utilities > Printing > Printers launches the Common Unix Print System Manager utility. To print, just double-click the New Printer icon, enter the information it wants and print the test page. No problem, right? Well, mostly.

There was one little glitch that required some research to get over. I knew the editorial printer was an HP Laser Jet 4000. I knew it was attached to an HP Jet Direct. I had the IP address of the Jet Direct, so I entered it, continued to the next screen and selected the printer. All seemed fine. I created a test page in a text editor and sent it off. But off it didn't go. I double-checked the settings and tried again. Still nothing.

An hour later, I found the information I needed in the reference manual mentioned in the startup guide. When it asked for the Host, it wanted a name. I printed a test page from the Jet Direct, got its name, typed the name in the Host field and it worked. In YaST (Yet another Setup Tool), SUSE's main admin tool, I made it available to all users and it appeared in the Printers list for the users.

E-mail and calendar: We use IBM's Lotus Notes, and this turned out to be an initial sticking point, since IBM didn't want to give us a test copy of an older version Notes for Linux when the Notes 8 beta was due out any day. Fortunately, Notes has a Webmail client, so Sharon still had access to her e-mail and calendar via the Web. She later installed the Notes 8 client public beta herself.

-- Joyce Carpenter  

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