Tired of doing Windows? Well, there might be no better time than now to consider a pure Linux environment.
The flat economy, rising software costs, shrinking technology budgets, and Microsoft's licensing and pricing gambles with Windows XP and .Net services have many SMB customers clamoring to solution providers for inexpensive alternatives. Although Linux's corporate inroads have primarily been on the server front and questions remain about the profitability of a Linux-powered desktop, a select few solution providers are already closing deals and reaping rewards from selling Linux-based solutions.
To get a firsthand look at the viability of a "Windows-free" solution, the CRN Test Center built a Linux network consisting of a server and five workstations running various distributions of Linux. The goal was to create a reliable network that could be used in a typical small-business environment.
Linux platform offers solution providers a reliable, low-cost alternative in the SMB space.
And a legion of solution providers agree. "For most business uses, Linux desktops and available applications can perform the tasks people need, reliably and efficiently," said Evan Liebovitch, a partner at Starnix, a Linux-centric VAR based in Toronto.
So far, however, Linux has been a tough sell for many solution providers. As an open-source platform, Linux has faced some hurdles in penetrating a critical mass of businesses, not the least of which is the end user's willingness to change.
"The biggest single challenge, in my experience, is inertia," Liebovitch said. "People who are used to Windows will undergo a learning curve. This is no different from the changes necessary in moving from Windows to, say, a Mac."
What's more, many potential clients simply haven't recognized Linux as a viable platform. But that is beginning to change. With major vendors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems touting Linux's capabilities, solution providers now should be able to demonstrate the platform's practicality to customers.
"The single biggest problem at the enterprise level is politics," said Leon Brooks, director of CyberKnights, a Perth, Australia-based network integrator. "Many managers either don't know that anything besides Windows exists or have been snowed into believing that Windows is the best answer to every problem."
Similarly, a perceived lack of applications has hindered Linux's acceptance, solution providers said. "The single biggest obstacle to Linux everywhere is specific Windows applications with no direct portable equivalent, like AutoCAD or MS-Publisher. Some people are unwilling to substitute near-equivalents," Brooks said. "Alternatives are arising, and I expect that by 2003 there will be polished, open alternatives to MS-Publisher, Adobe Illustrator, MS-Access, AutoCAD and the like."
Although many software companies don't develop native Linux applications, customers' needs often can be met with the plethora of open-source and commercial Linux applications now readily available.
"Most of the common desktop work,including Internet surfing, e-mail, spreadsheet, word processing and presentation software,has arrived with a comparable level of quality [in Linux] as software found under Windows. This wasn't the case three years ago," said Gael Duval, founder of Mandrake Linux, an Altadena, Calif.-based Linux distributor.
Moreover, the need for a Windows-based application isn't necessarily a showstopper. Commercial products like Netraverse's Win4Lin let users run native Windows applications on a Linux desktop, and VMware's VMware workstation can be used to create multiple virtual machines running Windows under Linux.
'The advances in the KDE interface and the easy system maintenance provided by both SuSE and Mandrake provide a solid client desktop that Windows clients can't touch.' ,Anthony Awtrey, I.D.E.A.L. Technology
'Most of the common desktop work,including Internet surfing, e-mail, spreadsheet, word processing and presentation software,has arrived with a comparable level of quality [in Linux] as software found under Windows. This wasn't the case three years ago.' ,Gael Duval, Mandrake Linux
One of the most perplexing choices with Linux is deciding which of the numerous vendor distributions to use. Many Linux solution providers work with several distributions and pick those that best fit a customer's needs. Still, some do have their preferences.
"Most of our clients run either Mandrake or SuSE on their desktops," said Anthony Awtrey, director of integration at I.D.E.A.L. Technology, Melbourne, Fla. "The advances in the KDE interface and the easy system maintenance provided by both SuSE and Mandrake provide a solid client desktop that Windows clients can't touch."
Starnix's Liebovitch agreed. "For an all-around desktop distribution, my current favorite is Mandrake. Red Hat is better-known and has the biggest services organization. But I find Mandrake to be a better non-techie user package. I would also note that Caldera, while it lags behind other Linux vendors in techie esteem, is still the most channel-friendly distribution by a long shot."
The Test Center's "non-Windows" network included Linux distributions from Red Hat, Mandrake and Caldera for the desktop and server implementations. To reflect the mishmash of equipment usually found in a small-business environment, the Test Center used a menagerie of hardware to gauge various Linux configurations. This included computers ranging from older Intel Pentium II-based systems to systems based on the latest Intel and Advanced Micro Devices processors as well as storage devices, such as SCSI and IDE hard drives and CD-ROM and DVD drives. Broadband Internet connectivity was supplied via a cable modem linked directly to a Linux-based server or shared via a Linksys broadband router.
Test Center engineers found the installation of the various Linux distributions surprisingly easy. Caldera, Mandrake and Red Hat have gone to great lengths to simplify the process, and their products generally had no problems identifying the hardware and successfully installing Linux on any of the test systems.
Caldera's OpenLinux Workstation, however, refused to install on two of the test systems, offering only a cryptic "system not suitable" style of message. Further investigation of the install logs showed incompatibilities with a generic video card and an older Adaptec SCSI controller. Conversely, Mandrake's and Red Hat's installation wizards demonstrated that concerns about hardware compatibility might well be a thing of the past.
The inclusion of automated disk partitioning eased installation of all three distributions. In the past, partitioning hard drives to accept Linux was a big installation hassle. Unlike DOS or Windows, Linux requires multiple disk partitions and doesn't use drive letters to identify those partitions. Automating the partitioning process reduces the confusion. Partitions are conceptually similar to the directory structure used in the DOS/Windows world.
A major decision faced by Linux installers is choosing a graphical user interface (GUI). Gnome and KDE are the two most popular Linux GUIs, and most distributions include both. Test Center engineers found KDE the friendliest and were impressed with the array of KDE-compatible software. In fact, the Linux distributions tested all included a vast amount of software. Most of the included software is based upon open-source licensing and can be distributed without additional licensing fees.
Installers will want to seriously consider deploying Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, a user-friendly office productivity suite (word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications) that's compatible with Microsoft Office file formats. Users familiar with Microsoft Office would find the transition to StarOffice easy. Other office suites also are available, including KOffice, which is integrated in the KDE desktop. Though not as polished as StarOffice, KOffice can meet most users' needs.
And Linux's software flexibility isn't limited to office suites. An array of open-source and commercial applications are available for most any business situation. For advanced graphical editing, for example, users can turn to GIMP, an application that brings Adobe Photoshop-like capabilities to Linux. For personal financial management, users can opt for GNUcash, an open-source, Intuit Quicken-compatible product. And on the accounting end, Appgen Software's MyBooks products offer all the bells and whistles normally found in products such as Intuit's QuickBooks, and for a fraction of the cost.
For situations where legacy Windows applications must be supported, solution providers can turn to commercial products such as Win4Lin or VMware Workstation.
Test Center engineers installed the latest version of Win4Lin on Mandrake Linux Standard Edition 8.1 running the KDE desktop and on Red Hat Linux Professional 7.2 running the Gnome desktop. Win4Lin offered a straightforward install and true Windows 98 compatibility. The product creates a virtual environment to install an actual copy of Windows 98, and the wizard-driven installation offers customization features. The Win4Lin version of Windows 98 allows the installation of Windows applications and can run the software with Linux concurrently.
Test Center engineers encountered no stability problems using Win4Lin, but there was a performance degradation. Still, Win4Lin offers adequate compatibility to serve most Windows application needs in the Linux environment.
VMware Workstation 3.0 offers another legacy solution and comes in Windows and Linux versions. The product lets users create multiple virtual machines under a host operation system, allowing multiple operating systems to be run concurrently.
The Test Center tested both VMware Workstation versions. The installation was straightforward under Windows 2000, and Test Center engineers were able to quickly deploy multiple instances of Linux under Windows 2000 using the virtual-machine setup wizards. Each instance of Linux can run in its own virtual machine (installers will need plenty of disk space and RAM to create effective virtual machines). VMware includes detailed instructions for most popular distributions of Linux; Red Hat and Mandrake Linux were tested under the Test Center Windows environment.
VMware's Linux version proved more complex. Test Center engineers installed the product on a system running Red Hat Linux Professional 7.2 with the Gnome desktop. The RPM install utility was used to install the VMware package, and then the setup wizard was used to create a virtual machine running Windows XP Professional under Linux. The virtual Windows XP environment proved stable, but there was a performance degradation.
In the Linux realm, solution providers also can craft custom applications for their customers. As early as two years ago, Linux desktop applications remained out of the reach of mainstream developers, and most of the open-source tools created were written primarily for C programmers. But that's starting to change.
KDE is the most actively developed Linux desktop and has the most tools. Solution providers seeking KDE desktop open-source development tools should go to www.apps.kde.com, which has ratings on each product, including feedback from the user community. One of the most promising tools at the site is KDevelop, which includes a wizard that generates skeleton code for an application and runs a number of compilers and object linkers through its IDE, hiding most of the complexity from programmers.
Several months ago, the introduction of Borland's Kylix language marked a new chapter in Linux development. Kylix is based on the popular Delphi language, Borland's version of object-oriented Pascal. The language now includes XML SOAP-based Web services, a cross-platform development framework and a number of RDBMS mapping tools. Like most modern rapid application deployment (RAD) tools, it includes a top-of-the-line IDE and source-debugging facility.
Despite the various distribution, application, deployment and development routes solution providers can take with Linux, they'll often find that the proof is in the pudding when selling solutions based on the platform. Linux's low cost, unlimited distribution and elimination of licenses can be a big catalyst in sales pitches.
"My clients are very impressed when they see my proposal with its inexpensive hardware specification, and they realize that the price includes all software," said David Lane, director of Egressive, a Christchurch, New Zealand-based network integrator. "Also, potential clients finally comprehend that there are no licenses, and when they talk to my existing clients, they find that in addition to everything else, Linux is more reliable and needs almost no maintenance."
MARIO MOREJON contributed to this story.