Is Linux ready to challenge MS Vista?

Another turbulent period of change is facing organisations over the next two years. Desktop roll-outs are one of the biggest and costliest headaches for any enterprise, and the prospect of another version of Windows is daunting.

Another turbulent period of change is facing organisations over the next two years. Desktop roll-outs are one of the biggest and costliest headaches for any enterprise, and the prospect of another version of Windows is daunting.

It is a time for all IT departments to assess where they are going, and this fact has not escaped the attention of Linux suppliers.

At the Brainshare Novell user conference in Salt Lake City last month the company flagged the summer launch of version 10 of its SuSE Linux Enterprise operating system for servers and desktops. The company is positioning its Linux offering as a less complex alternative to the Vista release of Windows.

Jack Messman, chief executive and president of Novell, said, "Microsoft's Vista is going to require a big migration and more end-user training, and it makes sense that corporations will look at desktop Linux as an alternative now."

Linux on the desktop has come a long way since Novell and Red Hat turned their focus on the needs of the corporate user. Delivering the kind of polish and user-friendliness required is changing the perception that Linux is the preserve of the bearded, sandal-wearing geek.

Gary Barnett, research director at analyst firm Ovum, said, "In 2003 the battle was between the suits and the sandals but in 2004 the suits took over. This brought a lot of confidence to corporate customers, many of whom are quite conservative.

"It is never a bad time to look at Linux, but the question is whether it has reached the stage where companies will like what they see. In the past year we have seen some important changes that make Linux more viable but, in my view, Linux is still not quite at the stage where the general customer will view it as a desktop alternative to Windows. It still has a few rough edges, but it is really very close to being ready for use within the enterprise."

One aspect of this new professional approach was demonstrated by Novell at Brainshare. During a keynote a series of pictures showed lab testing where first-time users were exposed to desktop SuSE Linux and its applications to discover where usability problems may lie.

This is something that Microsoft has been doing for many years and it has vastly improved Windows. In many ways Linux has a lot of catching up to do, but the past record has shown that the community learns fast - both from its own research and from Microsoft's example.

Red Hat runs similar tests and Gerry Riveros, product marketing manager for desktop client solutions, said, "The look and feel has to be similar to what everyone has been trained to use, but we are still trying to do something that is different because we are not trying to be a Windows clone.

"The differences come around security and the way we handle that and the way we handle manageability. If you look at the total cost of ownership for an enterprise, it is not so much the acquisition costs that is the big driver, it is the management costs for all the people involved - the systems administrators. This is where we have been focusing our efforts to really drive those costs down."

In the early days, using Linux on the desktop was seen as an individual's choice. The operating system and graphical user interface (GUI) had to be loaded on a computer-by-computer basis, and ongoing management was down to each user's preferences.

In the corporate world, centralised management is important in keeping costs down, and so we have seen the rise of Linux equivalents of Microsoft Systems Manager.

Red Hat has Satellite Server for bare-metal installation and hardware configuration, or Network Server for application roll-outs and client management. For Novell, these functions are contained within the Zenworks suite alongside features such as patch management and handheld device management.

The software suppliers are moving closer to the computer makers, as witnessed by Red Hat's long-established links with IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

Dell announced at Brainshare that it will be supplying a customised version of Novell's management system, Zenworks 7 Linux Management - Dell Edition, as an exclusive offering for Poweredge servers running Linux. Significantly, no similar announcement has been made for desktop Linux.

Laurent Lachal, a senior analyst at Ovum, said, "Suppliers like Dell will definitely not jump on to the bandwagon until it is mainstream. IBM may be first to move but it has been quite shy to do so in the past."

Security management is still developing in these packages, with Red Hat using Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux) and Novell open-sourcing its own project Apparmor.

SELinux has been developed by the US National Security Agency (NSA) with the help of the Linux community. It is a policy-based application that confines each program's access rights only to files needed to complete specific actions. Novell's Apparmor works in a similar way, but automatically analyses how an application behaves, locking out any unexpected behaviour.

This means that much of the security is handled within the operation so that firewalls and anti-virus applications can be less complex than their Windows equivalents.

Linux is inherently more resistant to malicious code than Windows, but this is a contentious area and complacency is a dangerous attitude in IT. There is a wide range of third-party products covering firewalling and anti-virus protection from companies such as Check Point, SmoothWall, Firestarter, Computer Associates, Sophos, F-Secure, Trend Micro and Kaspersky Labs.

A major problem when considering Linux clients is the lack of application software. Even the suppliers admit that the best uses for Linux desktops are in the kiosk, basic office and specialist workstation areas. 

Michael Silver, research vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, explained that the user interface for Novell Desktop looks a lot more mature than previous interfaces, but even though this may inspire more confidence it is not so important to a business.

"The piece that companies still have to realise when they start rolling Linux out is that it is still Linux. If they have Windows applications that the users need, they are going to have to do something about those. If they have browser applications that specifically require Internet Explorer, they are going to have some problems and need tweaks. If their users are heavy Office users, they are going to have to make sure that the new version of Openoffice is sufficient and can execute the macros that they need and displays existing documents with sufficient fidelity."

Openoffice has become the main Linux-based competitor for Microsoft Office and it is included with most packaged Linux desktops. It will display most Microsoft formats and the move to open XML formats as the default for the next version of Microsoft Office will only help interoperability - even though Openoffice favours a different XML schema: Oasis Open Document Format (ODF).

Novell has also co-ordinated the development of Mono, which allows Microsoft .net server and client applications to run on Linux. Mono is based on Microsoft's C# and Common Language Interface and includes class libraries for Linux so that .net applications can be made to run in a Linux/Windows cross-platform environment.

However, until all Windows applications are written to .net, the gulf between Linux and Windows will remain. Initiatives to encourage independent software suppliers to develop for Linux is starting to pick up speed, with Messman reporting that Novell has seen a rise from 40 partners during last year's conference to more than 1,000 this year.

Lachal said, "There are still quite a lot of applications, like Adobe Photoshop, which are mainstream applications but are not yet on Linux.

"Any major adoption of desktop Linux is still about two years away. The latest versions of Linux from both Novell and Red Hat are mature, but still lack the number of applications required and I think that, mainly Novell, will have to educate the channel to push the desktop - and that will take some time both from channel and applications development points of view."

Winning the battle to get the word out will still not be enough. Silver said, "Novell Desktop 10 is an important release in the evolution of desktop Linux. It has virtual private network clients which has been one of the most requested features by companies for a long time.

"It adds integrated search which makes it useful for knowledge workers. But it comes down to the application mix that the user needs to access and the degree of migration of applications that is required - the replacement of Windows applications with others. These considerations drive the costs up."

The hope was that Windows emulation would help bridge the gap, but now these efforts are being eclipsed by the availability of virtualisation software, primarily from Cambridge University's Xen project, which is being adopted by both Red Hat and Novell. This enables two different operating systems and their applications to be run on the same machine simultaneously.

Lachal does not buy into this. "What the enterprise wants to do is to standardise on one specific image of a system. They are not about letting users play around with two operating systems at the same time because that would be too complex."

The signs are there that Linux is maturing into something that can be as useful as Windows but is being seriously hindered by the lack of key applications. Anyone considering change should look at the bigger picture over the next two or three years as broadband internet is more widely adopted.

Barnett said, "Take a look at Linux every six months because it is changing fast. As we get into broadband internet and browser-based, on-demand services such as or NetSuite, you are no longer tied to a desktop, and that opens up all sorts of possibilities.

"Ironically, companies need to ask themselves where they want to go today. How do they want to interact with information technology? Where do they want to store their data?. How do they want to exchange data? Do they want to carry a laptop or something lighter?"

Whatever the future holds, whether that is sticking with Windows, experimenting with Linux or becoming platform agnostic in a browser-driven age, change is inevitable. Linux has become more than interesting, but less than irresistible.

Lachal summed up the situation, "There is not going to be a silver bullet that will make people want to switch to Linux. It is going to be slow. It is going to be hard. It is going to be costly. Novell's message that Vista's arrival will be a good opportunity to reconsider your strategy is not really something that is going to happen for most companies."

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