The Power of X

My recent columns about Windows XP and Linux sparked a number of questions from readers. The answers are worth sharing because they shed some light on a recently leaked memo by Microsoft Vice President Brian Valentine. It begins by saying customers are "fed up with expensive Unix/RISC solutions from Sun, HP and IBM. They're looking to move, and they want to migrate to the Intel platform. Unfortunately, because Linux is very similar to Unix, and porting applications from Unix to Linux isn't that hard, we're starting to see customers move their Unix applications to Linux on Intel platforms. I need you to make sure that as many of these customers as possible continue to migrate off of Unix, but on to Windows 2000 on Intel."

Most of the questions from readers revolved around my claim that I could log in as several different users on a single Linux desktop box and for each user run different graphical desktop environments, one of which happened to be called WindowMaker. Many readers wondered why I would want to do such a thing. Let me assure you that I don't have a multiple personality disorder. In this case, the only reason I logged in as multiple users was to demonstrate that Unix is light-years ahead of Windows in terms of multiuser capabilities.

What concerned me most, however, was the fact that many readers asked if WindowMaker was software that lets you run Windows applications under Linux. The answer is no. There are ways to run Windows applications under Linux, but WindowMaker isn't one of them. WindowMaker is one of many X11-based window managers. Others include AfterStep, Blackbox, CDE, Enlightenment, FVWM, IceWM, sawfish, TWM and XFce. If you're familiar with X11 and have simply never heard of WindowMaker, relax. But if you don't know what a window manager is or how X11 works, your ignorance could cost your company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

X11 is essentially a graphical user interface library, but don't make the mistake of thinking it's anything like Win32. X11 and the Win32 application programming interface are as different as night and hot. They're not even similar enough to deserve a comparison like night and day or cold and hot.

There are two key differences. First, X11 is as bare-bones as you can get. X11 doesn't do icons, task bars, resizable windows or anything else. If you want those features, you need to add a window manager like WindowMaker to X11. If you want to drag and drop components from one application to another, you also need to add a desktop environment like KDE or Gnome.

The above description makes X11 sound pretty useless, but nothing could be further from the truth. The secret value of X11 is that it's a client/server user interface library. The only tricky part to remember is that the client and server are located in reverse order of where you'd expect them to be. In other words, your local keyboard, mouse and display are handled by the X11 server. A typical example of an X11 client would be a word processor such as KWord, which I'm using right now.

The power of X11 is that you can run applications like KWord on your local machine or on a remote server and it will look and behave exactly the same either way. You don't have to rewrite the application to add remote access as a feature. There are no registry entries to fudge in order to prevent it from overwriting someone else's settings. And you can run as many local and remote applications as you want, side-by-side.

So why is it important for you to know all this? Because if you migrate from Unix to Linux, you'll still have the features of X11. If you migrate from Unix to Windows 2000, you'll lose these features because Microsoft's standard client access licenses allow you to run only local applications. If you want to run any applications remotely, it will cost you an additional $2,669 for every 20 users.

In short, you can keep all your features, migrate five servers to Windows 2000 Advanced Server and install Windows XP Professional on 250 clients for about $133,000, not including hardware or service contracts. Or you can migrate five servers and 250 clients to Linux for anywhere between $1 and $200, not including hardware or service contracts. Gosh, Brian, I can hardly wait to see how your next leaked memo addresses that difference.

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Hayward, Calif. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon