Is Linux ready for the corporate desktop?

Is Linux ready for the corporate desktop? Join Computerworld's online discussion and share your views.

With the proven success of Linux-based servers for mission-critical business applications, many have asked when Linux on the corporate desktop will also take off. While Linux distributions and key server technologies such as Apache and Samba power up to a third of corporate Web, database and file servers, widespread adoption of Linux for end-user desktops at the expense of Microsoft Windows has seemed like the promise of a distant future.

Until now.

The penetration of Linux into corporate desktops has already begun as research and development departments, technology companies, retail powerhouses and even national governments turn to Linux and free software for its superiority as a development environment, its easier customization and its lower cost of ownership relative to Windows-based systems. To move beyond its current 2% market share (according to a figure published by IDC in March), though, the Linux desktop must be easier to use and offer the file compatibility and suite of productivity applications that users need while simplifying the management of constantly enhanced open-source software.

Where it's at

To understand where the Linux desktop is going, it's important to first understand the following areas where Linux and open-source software client solutions are now being used:

  • The product-development desktop. Heavily concentrated in telecommunications, technology, engineering R&D, government and higher education, Linux desktops are being increasingly chosen as the development environment and systems monitoring platform of choice. The rapidly increasing number of Linux servers being used as Web, database and file servers is naturally driving this. These Linux PCs and workstations are used to develop, deploy and maintain embedded systems, Web/e-commerce infrastructures and other key applications. This is confirmed by a recent Gartner Inc. survey of workstation buyers showing Linux will gain 10% in terms of future deployments at the expense of Unix and Windows NT.
  • The transactional desktop. Linux is also increasingly being used for dedicated transactional desktops where data entry or information retrieval is the primary use of the machine. This includes applications such as customer relationship management and retail point of sale/purchase. For example, The Home Depot Inc. has announced that it will deploy Linux-based PCs for its custom sales kiosks.
  • The international desktop. The Linux desktop will see disproportionate growth internationally as developing nations and U.S. trade competitors increasingly deploy technology for government programs, education and other social services in order to bridge the "digital divide." The eMexico initiative and proposed legislation in Argentina and the European Union that may mandate open-source desktop systems for major government programs reflect this. This trend is motivated by lower cost of ownership and nationalism, as these countries seek to avoid exporting hundreds of millions of dollars for proprietary software licenses -- most of it to Redmond, Wash.

Fulfilling the Linux promise?

It's clear that the same factors influencing the selection of Linux-based systems for mission-critical servers are also leading developers, system administrators, IT managers and corporate customers to Linux on the desktop. Those factors include the following:

  • Ease of customization. By definition, open-source software provides companies with the means to customize and enhance off-the-shelf software without the constraint of the usual vendor-imposed upgrade cycles.
  • Rapid development. Building on proven, common components developed and tested by thousands of developers worldwide, companies can quickly create and deploy custom applications for their environments. New features, security updates, bug fixes and other enhancements can be introduced through a process of continuous improvement using tools available to all, such as GCC, Emacs, Gnome and GTK+.
  • Lower total cost of ownership. In addition to reducing the cost of development and maintenance, Linux desktops offer significantly reduced software licensing costs. The free software model means that the companies can deploy and update operating systems (such as Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, Debian and TurboLinux) as well as desktop environments and application suites (such as Ximian Gnome and KDE) for a fraction of the cost of Microsoft Windows and Office licenses.

That said, there have been two perceived stumbling blocks to the accelerated adoption of Linux on the enterprise desktop. The first can be called the two-machine problem. That is, how can users rely solely on an easy to use Linux desktop when they need a second or "virtual" Windows box just to access to corporate Microsoft Office documents and e-mail systems? Second, there is the software management problem: How do users and companies maintain and support Linux-based PCs in an open-source environment as software components are constantly being updated and enhanced?

The Gnome project, which includes IBM, Hewlett Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc., Red Hat Inc., Ximian Inc. and other key industry players, is providing the following answers to both problems:

  • True usability. A prerequisite to solving the two-machine problem is providing the end-user usability that Linux PCs have lacked in the past. Over the past three years, major open source efforts such as the Gnome and KDE have made significant strides in delivering an easy-to-use Linux desktop. These usability improvements now ease installation, setup and configuration for Linux and Unix users. For example, graphical, drag-and-drop file managers provide rich, highly visual and unified management of local, network and Web-based files. In addition, utilities providing common interfaces across Linux distributions for network management, system configuration, user management and printer setup will become increasingly common.
  • A complete, compatible productivity environment. Key to both end user and corporate adoption of Linux on the desktop is the availability of a robust set of core productivity applications. These must be not only feature-rich but provide the Microsoft Office file format compatibility and network support for group collaboration needed to interoperate with corporate standards.

    Building on the Gnome project and the contributions of free software developers worldwide, the Ximian Gnome desktop environment provides more than a dozen productivity applications, including a Web browser, e-mail client, word processor, spreadsheet and photo/image editor, as well as personal finance, instant messaging and multimedia tools.

    Sun's StarOffice offers Linux users a comprehensive suite of powerful, integrated, Microsoft Office-compatible applications including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program and database. (The Linux desktop applications are taking another major step forward with the release of StarOffice under a general public license as OpenOffice.) With the upcoming release of Ximian Evolution, the Linux desktop will also feature an integrated personal information management application combining e-mail, calendar, address book and task list and providing support for Microsoft Exchange and other corporate messaging standards.
  • Simple software management. A second barrier to Linux use on the desktop is the challenge of software management. As open-source software packages common to multiple applications are constantly updated and enhanced -- a key benefit of open-source development -- the process of desktop maintenance can become exponentially more complex. Some Linux desktop users report spending up to 10 hours a week on this task alone.

New solutions now address this daunting task. The Red Hat Network, for example, provides the latest updates and security patches for users of Red Hat Linux systems. Ximian Red Carpet uses a channels metaphor and automatic conflict resolution to help users easily maintain, update and remove software regardless of Linux distribution. These services ensure that installed software remains in a working state even as new packages are subsequently added or removed.

Coming to a desktop near you

Linux for the corporate desktop is ready for prime time. Its adoption won't come as a mandate from above to replace Windows, although CIOs and IT managers will doubtless feel the urge upon reviewing the new Microsoft Office XP licensing and upgrade policies. Instead, like the personal digital assistant market in 1998, the grass-roots use of Linux desktops by key groups of users will lead to departmental and then centralized IT standards and support. What's true in R&D today will spread to other groups tomorrow.

Miguel de Icaza is chief technology officer and co-founder of Ximian Inc., a Boston-based company providing desktop infrastructure, applications, services and support for the Linux and Unix market, including the Ximian Gnome desktop for Linux.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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