It's one of the perennial questions facing the open-source movement: Is Linux ready for the corporate desktop? Ready or not, Linux is coming.
Industry research company IDC predicts that enough companies will see the benefits of a Linux desktop to increase paid shipments of the operating system from 3.4 million clients worldwide in 2002 to more than 10 million by 2007, giving Linux a small but respectable 6% of the desktop market.
"Linux captured the number two spot as desktop operating system in 2003," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. "IDC sees Linux maintaining that position and growing ever so slightly - but not becoming a dominant force or even a major force."
Regardless of whether Linux will be a real threat to Windows on the desktop, the expected growth was enough to prompt Linux supplier Red Hat to introduce an enterprise-focused Red Hat Desktop product in May.
Despite being the leading commercial Linux supplier, Red Hat actually lags behind Sun Microsystems' Linux desktop sales to enterprises.
Last autumn, Sun began shipping its Java Desktop System, which is based on the SuSE Linux distribution. SuSE has shipped a product for corporate users since March 2003, called the SuSE Linux Desktop. Since being acquired by Novell earlier this year, SuSE has been readying the Novell Linux Desktop, which will incorporate software from Novell's 2003 acquisition of Ximian.
"We're listening to customers, and we're listening to the market," said Novell chief technology officer Alan Nugent.
"And the market keeps saying, 'Why do I have to spend all of this money on licences for XYZ software when these 40,000 desktop machines are sitting here just running a mail client, a web browser, and a couple of Citrix-served apps?' "
In January, Eddie Bleasdale, a UK-based systems integrator, formed the Incubator Club, an informal group of IT managers who meet regularly to discuss their experiences with Linux and open-source migrations.
According to Bleasdale, existing members of the club are engaged in pilot projects and even some large-scale Linux migrations, which could collectively total as many as 200,000 desktops.
If IT managers take a long-term approach, the move to Linux desktops has enough benefits to make the switch worthwhile - from lower software licensing costs, to a slower hardware upgrade cycle, to increased efficiency owing to more secure, scalable, and reliable systems.
"Your objective should be to reduce your costs of computing by half," he said.
One major outstanding issue for any company looking to migrate to the Linux desktop, however, is application support.
The Allied Irish Bank recently began the process of migrating 8,000 of its branch-office clients from Windows 3.1 to Sun's Linux-based Java Desktop System. Linux was appropriate for the bank's branch offices, which have a "definable functionality", said Michael Bowler, the bank's IT architecture manager.
With approximately 500 Windows-based applications in AIB's corporate offices, the bank has no plans to deploy Linux companywide.
"Corporate head-office environments tend to have a large, disparate application set. I'm not sure you could define the functionality," Bowler said.
Outside of small-business and home-office environments, this is a common story for Linux on the desktop.
Larger enterprises are adopting tentatively but only in places where administrators can use it for a limited set of applications and where it offers a definite and compelling benefit, in call centres, technical workstations, or on point-of-sale terminals, for example.
For AIB, those clear and compelling benefits came from centralising data that had been distributed throughout the branch offices onto a more flexible back-end application architecture.
"Our view was that centralising all of the data was the best way forward from a regulatory and compliance perspective," Bowler said.
Whereas complex, custom applications in particular may be difficult to migrate to Linux, more mainstream desktop productivity applications pose less of a challenge.
The set of alternatives to Windows applications is growing, including Sun's StarOffice office productivity suite, the Mozilla browser, Novell's Evolution groupware client, OS virtualisation software such as VMWare Workstation, and CodeWeavers's CrossOver Office, which allows users to run Windows applications directly on Linux.
With such alternatives available, end-users can experience a Linux desktop that closely resembles the Windows they are used to.
Compatibility software such as CrossOver Office can be enough to push some companies over to Linux. Digital animation studios Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney have moved a combined total of 2,400 of their technical workstations to Linux.
They use the CodeWeavers product to run software that the studios cannot port to Linux themselves, such as Adobe Photoshop, according to CodeWeavers chief executive officer Jeremy White.
"They used to have a Windows computer and a Linux computer, and now they just have a Linux computer."
Citrix Systems' MetaFrame Access Suite and Tarantella's Secure Global Desktop can serve applications-hosted Windows machines to Linux clients. But all of these products require some tuning, or at least extra software licences, to achieve parity with Windows.
Even CodeWeavers' White agrees that Windows compatibility, in itself, still leaves users without a compelling reason to switch to Linux.
"Even if Linux were a drop-dead, perfectly compatible, just-as-good replacement for Windows, you wouldn't find a lot of people switching," White said. "You have to not just be good enough; you have to be compellingly different to take over the world."
Flipping the switch
For some, Linux is already more than good enough. Already in the process of moving the city's servers to Linux, the city of Bergen, Norway, expects to begin moving desktops in its 100 schools to the free operating system next year.
For the city's head of technology, Ole-Bjorn Tuftedal, Linux on the desktop will mean less frequent hardware and software upgrades, a wider choice of software, and improved virus protection.
"There are many different costs that may not be apparent right away, but if you take them into consideration over a longer period, then they may pay off," Tuftedal said.
The city has already undergone two comprehensive user tests of Linux desktop systems. Users who were familiar with Windows were able to navigate through Linux's KDE (K Desktop Environment) and Gnome desktop interfaces. Linux proved to be a more secure architecture, as well.
Tuftedal found that centralised system management under Linux had a number of advantages, including a good selection of administration tools. Patch management, for example, was easier and more reliable under SuSE Linux's YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool) online update software than with Microsoft's Systems Management Server 2.0.
"It's easier to set up all the clients to automatically download patches from a centralised server after the different patches have been vetted by us," Tuftedal said. However, he noted that the transition required some technical savvy.
"Here the tools are used by skilled engineers where it pays to train them, if necessary, and the 'depth' of the tools is more important than a slick user interface."
It may take more than skilled administrators to support a large desktop Linux deployment, however. In some cases, hardware support can be an issue. Historically, support for the latest hardware under Linux has been spotty - but that's changing.
Some improvements derive from advancements in the Linux kernel itself. The forthcoming Novell Linux. Desktop is expected to be based on the Linux 2.6 kernel, which has greatly improved support for plug-and-play devices when compared with the 2.4 kernel
Although Bergen has spent the last few years trying to reduce the number of dependencies on the applications it purchases, the city still has a number of legacy applications that will not run on Linux.
"We either will have to incur the cost of porting them, incur the costs of switching to alternative software, or we will run them on Windows terminal servers," Tuftedal explained.
Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service
This was first published in August 2004