Putting Together A Linux Office

With increasing chatter about whether 2007 will be the "Year of the Linux Desktop," you hear considerably less about whether it's time for the Linux Office. But business desktops aren't just islands unto themselves. In a networked world, the desktop is just a piece of the office puzzle. There are also servers, printers, faxes and productivity applications.

For this Solutions That Work, the CRN Test Center put together a small-business Linux and open-source office environment and spoke to solution providers who have been examining Linux office solutions on the frontlines. The verdict: Microsoft has a lot to worry about down the road, but in 2007, Linux is still lacking the driver support, ease of use and interoperability with mainstream, legacy software to make office migration pain-free.

In other words, unless you like spending countless hours searching for drivers for office functions like printing and scanning, unless you enjoy teaching customers how to use Linux line commands and unless you can convince customers to simply abandon some Microsoft applications documents because they can't be opened in OpenOffice.org software, don't count on the Windowsless Linux office this year.

"The open-source office would have a foothold, but the lack of a friendly user interface is what deters most folks from going straight for it," said Michael Rodriguez, vice president at Austin Computer Solutions, an Austin, Texas-based solution provider and Red Hat partner in the nascent stages of developing a Linux office practice.

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Ease-of-use issues continue to be a deal-breaker in many customer engagements. "We're having drawbacks with questions like, 'We're not sure how it works, how easy it is for folks to be productive on,' " Rodriguez said. "We're installing it in a couple of places where they are able to do their own test beds—places where the decision-maker is also going to be the one who is doing the test."

It's not all bad news for those in the channel building a Linux practice. Investments in developing Linux skills today will likely pay off to some degree over the longer haul as the platform gains acceptance and market share. After all, even Microsoft is investing in a partnership with longtime rival Novell on interoperability between its platform and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.

Next: Selecting The Server

Selecting The Server
In putting together a Linux office, the first step is selecting the right file server.

What do small businesses care most about when purchasing IT equipment? Price and reliability, mostly, and only when disaster strikes do they pay attention to the benefits of having data redundancy and protection. As such, while small businesses are often tempted to use desktops as file servers because they are cheaper and simpler to manage, solution providers need to consider bona fide servers with backup utilities and other management tools that arrive with servers.

After looking at some of the latest SMB file servers on the market, CRN Test Center engineers selected Hewlett-Packard's new Advanced Micro Devices-powered servers, which were released in March. The entry-level servers were price-competitive and came bundled with SUSE or Red Hat Linux.

With a starting price of $499, the ProLiant ML115 is the lowest entry-level server in HP's new line. The $499 price covers a single-core AMD Athlon processor with one 80-Gbyte SATA drive, without an OS. For an additional $179, HP will install and configure SUSE Linux Enterprise on the server. The SUSE server is the lowest price point HP is offering for these servers, but HP will also build the ML115 with Red Hat Linux, Windows 2000 and 2003 server and Microsoft Small Business Server. The ML115 server also supports AMD's dual-core Opteron. Both configurations come with ECC memory.

As tested, the ML115 arrived with the basic configuration running SUSE Enterprise Linux. HP did a good job integrating Linux tools and features with the server, and out of the box, all the internal devices worked perfectly.

Next: Setting Up The Server

Setting Up The Server
Setting up the SUSE server requires executing and configuring multiple modules, and getting some training is good idea. HP offers training through its distribution partners, but solution providers are required to have some practical experience deploying and managing Linux servers to take advantage of the training.

Surprisingly, this server comes with embedded RAID 0 and RAID 5. In fact, RAID 5 comes standard. This is a big cost savings to small customers because RAID cards are usually in the hundreds of dollars. In addition to the 80-Gbyte drive, solution providers can add up to three SATA hard drives. HP also sells the ML115 with a SAS configuration, which comes with AMD's Opteron processor.

The server comes in a MicroATX chassis and meets desktop acoustics standards. Solution providers can also add the LO100c remote management PCI card that allows them to connect to that server from the Internet. The card is a must-have, especially for solution providers that are not used to working with Linux. If something goes wrong with the server, solution providers can connect to it without having to drive to the site. Even if the server is off, solution providers can turn it back on remotely.

Integrating An MFP Into The Linux Office
Integrating printers or MFPs into a Linux office network can be about as much fun as trying to fix one of those old, phantom "PC Load Letter" warnings. The good news: HP has been among the leaders in the industry in developing Linux-friendly drivers for printing and MFP devices. The bad news: Even huge efforts by the biggest company in the printer industry still fall short.

Solution providers questioned about Linux driver support for document hardware devices over the past several months have noted marked improvement in what is available and what works. In fact, many of those same solution providers have also spoken with frustration over a dearth of driver support offered by Microsoft with its latest Windows Vista operating system.

CRNtech's look at printer hardware support in the Linux Office environment, though, turned up some potential ugly land mines. Selecting multifunction printers that work with Linux requires careful research on the part of solution providers, since drivers and utilities are not always available and are not easy to use. Because most vendors are still not prioritizing Linux drivers on new product lines, solution providers have to make sure that whatever is available on open-source third-party sites will be able to communicate and work with all the major features of a new multifunction device.

Next: Linux Driver Support Critical

Linux Driver Support Critical
The decision to select an HP All-In-One printer over competing vendors was fairly easy because, on SourceForge.net, HP sponsors an open-source effort called the HP Linux Imaging and Printing (HPLIP) project that makes available more than 1,000 printer drivers. The HPLIP staff develops and maintains most of HP's printer drivers, and this is one of the largest single vendor driver Web sites on the Internet for the Linux community.

Priced at $499, HP's OfficeJet Pro L7780 is a good choice for a small-office multifunction device. It comes with wired and wireless networking, a second 350-sheet paper tray, color graphics display, duplexer and a legal-size glass surface for scanning documents. Unfortunately, the SUSE Enterprise distribution installed on the server we received did not arrive with an HPLIP command-line or toolbox software package, so engineers had to download and run the HPLIP installer package in order to get the server to recognize and work with the HP OfficeJet Pro L7780.

HP claims that on distributions such as SUSE Standard, Novell loads the HPLIP package and free OSes such as Ubuntu should come with HP print drivers loaded. However, the Test Center could only find older OfficeJet drivers on the SUSE distro.

Options For Scanning Documents
Customers that need to run batch scanning from the ML115 Linux server or a SUSE Linux desktop can use command-line utilities such as scanimage. From the graphical desktop environment, called KDE, users can access Kooka to scan images via the user interface. Kooka has an OCR interface as well. To convert text from scanned images using the command line, Google's open-source Tesseract OCR program is extremely useful.

Despite all the command-line utilities available on SUSE and Linux in general, most of these tools are difficult to learn and master. Undoubtedly, solution providers will find it difficult to convince Windows users to work with the Linux command line. To wean customers off Windows, solution providers will need to find tools that work with the user interface whenever possible.

The HP OfficeJet Pro comes with nonvolatile memory so it can receive and store faxes even with the power off. It also comes with read/write thumb drive readers that allow users to scan images into a memory card. The easiest way to get around using command-line scan tools on Linux is to use USB-based memory card readers. Since HP's printer supports various card formats, users can easily scan multiple images into a thumb drive and then pass them to a reader on a Linux desktop system.

Another of the printer's benefits is that it was designed with stationary ink cartridges, allowing HP to sell large ink cartridges and reduce the cost of the inks. HP charges about $25 for large color cartridges.

The L7780 also comes with an embedded Web server that allows users to scan network folders for batch processing. This feature is only available on the L7700 series. Since the Web server supports Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, engineers were able to access it through the ML115 Linux server. However, HP's ReadIris Pro OCR software is only available on Windows and Mac OSX. The L7780 can convert documents into PDFs, JPEGs and even OCR images. After selecting a folder, users select a file type and naming convention and the built-in scanner does the rest.

Next: Migrating To OpenOffice Can Be Tedious

Migrating To OpenOffice Can Be Tedious
Solution providers should probably not recommend a client migrate from Microsoft Office to a Linux office package unless the conversion can be done without too much manual effort. A manual process is simply not cost-effective since the macro languages between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice are compiled and executed differently.

Fortunately, most small businesses do not tend to build applications using Microsoft's Office VBA code, and those that do are probably not good candidates for a Linux office, so moving to OpenOffice should be a straightforward process. But solution providers will still need to carve out a migration plan with customers to reduce as much of the manual work as possible.

Even when it seems to be a simple migration job, everything can go awry. For instance, something as simple as opening files such as Microsoft Access MDBs is not possible with OpenOffice. Instead, solution providers have to extract data from Access tables through DAO or ODBC, and then they have to manually build the relationships, queries and other database objects. OpenOffice's database uses HSQLDB as its engine.

Other semi-manual steps might be necessary as well if customers use many advanced features in Excel and Word. Formulas, for instance, require a manual transfer, and solution providers can easily get caught in the conversion minutiae.

Customers that want to continue using Microsoft Office need not abandon Linux altogether. Solution providers can use Samba's sharing services on the server to help Windows users share files across a network.

In addition to OpenOffice, solution providers should also demonstrate the Linux desktop look and feel and its file manager to customers before proposing a migration. Navigating through the Linux file system can take some acclimation.

"I think interoperability within all these platforms is going to help everybody," said Robert Kennedy, CEO of Computer Creations, a Centreville, Ohio-based solution provider and system builder. Kennedy said many technical issues remain unanswered, and compatibility issues are on the list.

Fortunately, not everything is hard. The OpenOffice community has done a great job creating file translators for Microsoft Office. Most of the files supported by Microsoft Office can be translated into OpenOffice and vice versa. With the exception of Office 2007's docx format, the other file formats are interchangeable.

Next: Putting It All Together With Tools

Putting It All Together With Tools
Despite all the progress Linux vendors have made over the past few years, administration can be a daunting task for solution providers catering to small businesses. Walking out of a customer's location without properly configuring tools to match every job task could possibly mean the end of a business relationship.

To be successful, solution providers should find ways to automate many repetitive tasks, such as backup. Unfortunately, SUSE Enterprise running on the HP ML115 server does not include any active automated backup process. As such, it might be worth considering two vendors in the small-business Linux server space that do include automated processes: FileEngine and Net Integration Technologies.

To begin with, FileEngine's server provides a single backup button, while Net Integration's Nitix operating system provides a one-step backup procedure that automatically archives network files and burns DVDs. Any user can be designated to back up the network using these servers.

The vendors have also simplified Linux management by automating setup and maintenance. Solution providers do not need to be familiar with Linux to work with Nitix or FileEngine. For instance, Nitix arrives with tools that can repair its operating system automatically while its installation process is executed through a simple form. FileEngine's setup process likewise only takes a couple of minutes. The FileEngine server also can automatically identify and connect to Windows PCs through a wizard. In the front of the FileEngine box, an LCD control panel helps users track the status of the server.

Server Has Some Catching Up To Do
As a Linux server, HP's ML115 needs to catch up to some of the automated procedures. For instance, the ML115's setup process that comes with SUSE Enterprise is rather basic and there is a lot of room for improvement. In fact, the options are wide open for HP solution providers to develop and sell simple user-interface-driven applications that automate the setup process and integrate management utilities.

The HP server did arrive with many SUSE network tools turned on, but most are not needed by small companies. Tools such as Samba and VNC, however, play a crucial role in managing file shares and desktop connections. Other network tools such as FTP server and XEN virtual server are unnecessary for most small businesses.

Out of the box, SUSE's YaST2 toolset includes a backup module that is simple to use. The backup module does not check for free space, though, so all volumes have to be stored on a hard drive before burning archived files on a CD. The backup tool does not support incremental or network-based backups.

Another simple option is to use shell scripts to build an automatic backup process. Solution providers comfortable with command-line tools such as tar, bzip2 and cp can quickly create batch files that execute backup procedures at regular intervals.

For a more robust solution, HP sells StorageWorks internal USB and SCSI DAT tape drives for the server, which come in sizes between 40 Gbytes and 232 Gbytes. The SCSI backup drives require an additional SCSI controller kit.

The Bottom Line: Easier, But Not Easy
Rolling out a Linux-based office is easier than ever, but that's not saying much. Some solution providers know that the market can sometimes be a lagging indicator of whether a technology is ready to make a play. Rodriguez, of Austin Computer Solutions, is in that camp.

"I haven't had many customers say, 'Hey, let's go with a Linux office. Let's close the deal,' " Rodriguez said. "Sometimes it appears they look at it more for negotiating purposes. But it's at the point where I believe in it, and it works."