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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The final piece of the puzzle

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When it becomes available, I download the public beta of Lotus Notes 8 for Linux, unpack some files and run the client installation file. This is the last critical piece of the experiment -- the way our newsroom is set up, it would be tough to do my day-to-day job without running the same communications platform as my colleagues.

After I answer a couple of questions and move a copy of my Notes ID file, I'm set up with Notes in just a few minutes. I can send and receive e-mail, access my calendar, schedule meetings, and use several of our newsroom-wide Notes databases.

Notes

Lotus Notes 8 for Linux (in beta). (Click image to see larger view.)

It is, however, painfully slow, since my hardware configuration falls somewhere between "minimum" (512MB RAM) and "recommended" (1GB). Don't expect Linux to give new life to your old hardware if you want to run the latest version of Notes. I put in a request to upgrade my Linux desktop.

The bottom line

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I expected to be a poster child for the next wave of Linux desktop adopters. I wanted to be. I like the whole idea of a technically macho, open-source operating system -- one that doesn't assume we all must be protected from an operating system's inner workings. I don't fear command lines, and enjoy fiddling around with programming.

It turns out that an intermediate-level power user may not be the ideal next desktop Linux demographic.

It was possible for me to do most, but not all, of my work on a Linux system. There are some applications I'd miss if I were to make the switch permanently, but I believe I could adequately replace them after sufficient research and time rewriting scripts.

There are a few other applications I definitely need access to from time to time and that won't run on Linux. I could probably deal with these either by virtual-machine Windows or by a separate Windows machine shared by multiple users. (Don't laugh -- that's what our copy editors did for awhile, since they're all on Macs and some initially wanted access to an ActiveX-control feature in our content management system.)

Other business users -- workers in sales, finance or human resources, for instance -- might also find that applications they depend on don't translate easily to Linux. They may find work-arounds; they may not.

While I liked many things about my Linux desktop (look and feel, elegant command-line implementations, robust open-source apps, the whole open-source concept), I found the lack of some key applications and the occasional hardware non-plug-and-play too limiting. Unlike Scot Finnie on Mac OS X, I'm not willing to tell Microsoft buh-bye. Not yet, anyway. But there's enough here I like that I'm going to keep the Linux system set up, too.

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Transition issues and how to solve them
Whether you're a seasoned admin looking to move other users from Windows to Linux, or a Windows user looking to investigate a Vista alternative, you're likely to encounter some snags. Here are some issues I encountered when trying to make the switch:

Does my hardware work? One of the major frustrations of moving to Linux is getting deep into the transition, only to discover that a favorite device (iPod, PalmPilot) won't connect properly. If you're an admin at a company where nonstandard hardware can be connected to your corporate network, you'll save a lot of headaches if you inventory users about such hardware in advance before trying to move them to Linux. If you're an end user, you might save yourself some aggravation by doing your own inventory, followed by a Web search to see if there are any known issues.

Another possible step before going through a full Linux installation is to download a "live" CD or DVD version of Linux, burn it and then boot up off the disc. You'll have a working Linux system where you can try to connect to your network, printers, handhelds and so on. Both openSUSE and Ubuntu have live CD/DVD versions available for free download.

Will my applications work? Inventory all the applications you have to have, plus all the ones you'd like to have. Will they run on Linux? If the application's vendor/publisher doesn't support Linux but the software supposedly runs using something like CrossOver Linux, definitely test it first before assuming that's an answer.

If your applications won't run on Linux, either natively or jury-rigged, are there similar applications that will satisfy user needs? If so, what's the learning curve? If not, are you willing to consider the licensing and support costs of using dual-boot systems or desktop virtualization?

Where's my stuff? As a Linux/Unix admin or user, you may be so used to directories like bin and lib that you don't give them a second thought. But trust me, most Windows users who've never seen an *x system will blanch at that collection of unfamiliar file names. If you're an admin, make sure to give your users a cheat sheet of what the important folders are, how to navigate to them and how to find equivalents to Windows folders, such as Program Files and My Documents.

If you're a new end user, you may find useful information about this on your distro's Web site or in a book such as SAM's Linux Starter Kit, or online (try FreeOS.com or Red Hat). A Linux Forums post also includes a brief nod to the difference in Windows and Linux paths.

Should users have root access? This one is workplace-specific, since you'd obviously give yourself full access to your own home system. On the job here, my "admin" decided I should test the setup without having root privileges. I wasn't very happy about it. Without being able to access YaST, I was unable to do things like check system status or download and install some security patches. I suspect some of these barriers could be addressed by adding privileges to a nonroot user.

You might get the same level of displeasure restricting admin privileges on a Windows system, but on top of the move to an unfamiliar operating system, reining in power users' abilities is likely to add to general new technology grumpiness. If you're rolling out multiple Linux desktops, investigate whether there are ways to give users added access without compromising security. And if you decide to keep people out of YaST, make sure to tell them why and who they need to talk to when they've got needs requiring root-level access.

-- Sharon Machlis  

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Sharon Machlis is Computerworld's online managing editor.

Have you made the switch to Linux at work? Are you pondering the move? Please add your experiences in the comments area at the bottom of the page.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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