Originally Published: Monday, 6 September 1999 Author: Tori Wildstar
Published to: corp_features/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Implementation & Implications of Linux Workstations

The idea of Linux workstations in the workplace was at one time out of the question. However, due to the increase in available desktop applications and support, Linux on the desktop has become a viable solution for the workplace. This paper outlines the issues involved and discusses some of the politics that come with putting Linux at your fingertips.

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I recently embarked on a job search. Throughout the interview process, I asked each potential employer about the possibility of using Linux on my personal workstation, provided I was hired. I was shocked to find that the typical response was "we only use PCs here."

I realize that not everyone is familiar with Linux. However, I was applying for IT positions. I was under the assumption--apparently mistaken--that most IT professionals knew that Linux ran on PCs.

I have since become employed by a company who had expressed a desire to learn more about Linux. In the process of sharing my Linux experiences with my co-workers and trying to convince management to allow me to use it, it has become evident that, despite the efforts of many people to dispel the myths, many people continue to have a very flawed image of a Linux workstation and a drastically skewed view of its capabilities.

Throughout my time at my current company, I have fielded questions and comments made by supervisors and coworkers. I felt that those questions and my responses to them might benefit other companies considering Linux workstations.

"This is a 'corporate' setting. We want everyone here to use the same software."

I completely understand the desire to have everyone using the same type of software. After all, it would make it much easier on the IT staff and marketing staff or whichever division handles licensing and purchasing the software products. However, I strongly feel that, as beneficial as the idea might sound, it can be detrimental to productivity. I work with many people who use Macs and a few who use Linux and BSD outside of work. There are also several people here who are very comfortable using SunOS and Solaris. Most of us prefer those operating systems to Windows, yet all of us have to use Windows at work on a daily basis. This does not make any of us happy. We know that we would get more work done and accomplish that more quickly if we were using our preferred operating systems. Knowing that makes us more disgruntled. It's an endless cycle.

One major "downfall" of allowing us to use those operating systems is that the IT staff would need to be proficient in several OSs. Is that really a downfall, though? I am of the belief that all IT departments should know about all of the available operating systems, including setup, security and troubleshooting. How else can IT departments make informed decisions about which operating systems companies should use?

Another downfall is an increased complexity in purchasing, licensing and updating software. Based on the software market today, I'm not sure how this can be avoided, but I'd like to think that having to keep track of everything is a small "price" to pay to increase the productivity of your staff. On the upside, many Linux distributions and applications require no end-user licenses and cost nothing. Some of those even offer free Internet-based technical support and a few have support phone numbers. Depending on your needs, making use of these might be a viable option.

"Why should an employee be allowed to use Linux on his or her workstation?"

I currently need to reboot my machine--which is a brand new machine with Windows 98 tuned by people with Microsoft certificates--at least once or twice in an eight-hour work day. I typically use a graphic manipulation tool, a text editor, a Web browser, and a mail client. I sometimes have a music application open, and I occasionally need to use a sound editor. The hardware in this machine is expected to handle those applications easily. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the operating system can meet those demands.

Perhaps I just don't get along with Windows. I have set up and maintained Windows machines and I have done technical support for Windows networking, but I could be doing things the wrong way. If this is the case, then I think I would be better off using Linux. I wouldn't need to take as much time out of my day to reboot. I wouldn't spend as much time handling the amount of problems I seem to have with Windows. I would get more actual work done and I would feel better about my job performance.

Whether the cause of the problems is me or the operating system, the end result remains the same. Using a Linux workstation would increase my productivity and my penchant for the job. I'm sure there are other people like me.

"Linux is an operating system written by a 'hacker' and it is still in progress."

This comment seems to come up a lot, no matter how many people have tried to explain the history of Linux. The statement is actually true. The sentiment is unfounded. Linux was originally started by a hacker and has been developed by him and by other hackers over the years. A hacker, in the true sense of the word, is someone who enthusiastically writes and changes code. A hacker is essentially a programmer. Many "professional" programmers insist that hackers are the amateur or non-professional representation of the breed, but I have not seen much evidence to back that up. To the contrary, a survey by Randolph Bentson strongly suggests that the core developers of the Linux kernel are professional, extremely well-educated individuals. Linux developers have been described as "young hackers doing impressive work but motivated in part by having too much free time" (Bob Sullivan, MSNBC -- " BSD a better OS than Linux?" -- ZDNN -- 07/22/99). I agree that many Linux developers are "young hackers doing impressive work." That is, if the word "hacker" is used to mean "an individual who enthusiastically writes and changes code." These hackers may or may not have "too much time on their hands," but, if they do, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Linux is still in progress. It will most likely always be in progress. This is a benefit of the operating system. The OS will change--and improve--as the industry changes.

"Linux is all text, isn't it? I couldn't work like that!"

This is a very common misconception.

Linux can be "all text" if a user wants it to be--but it does have to be. There are several desktop environments available. These are extremely customizable, but will give your computer a graphical look right "out of the box." For those of you who like to change your desktop to suit your mood or to "escape" from a dull grey cubicle, there are many themes available. I use a standard AfterStep theme that came with the window manager. I've made my own little icons to represent 20 of my most commonly used applications. The icons sit in a narrow and tidy righted menu bar which stretches from the top to the bottom of my screen. The menu also contains a small calendar, a clock, and a constantly changing meter that helps me to track the performance of my computer. At any given time, there are approximately 40 organized terminal windows (accessible from a pager), a Web browser, a word processor, at least one music application, a graphic creation/manipulation tool, and an e-mail client at my disposal. I've got more menus than I know what to do with and my desktop colour and theme can change with a point and click.

"If I had a Linux workstation, how would I use my Windows applications?"

More and more companies are in the process of, or at least considering, Linux versions of their software. For the time being, not all software is made for use with Linux. In fact, most software is only made for a few operating systems despite the fact that there are many operating systems available to computer users. However, there is more software available for Linux than people not familiar with the operating system seem to think. In fact, I've been using Linux for years and even I was not familiar with many of the software titles now available to me.

Sites like Linux Links: The Linux Portal Site, Linuxberg, and Freshmeat are very helpful when it comes to finding and selecting software for a Linux workstation.

If there a critical application is not available for Linux, there may be alternatives. If a product made by a certain vendor must be used, there are emulators available. These emulators, in my opinion, can sometimes make things seem a bit quirky, but they are very beneficial for those who sporadically need to use one or two applications that will not directly run on Linux. Many of the emulators available today work quite well with some very popular applications. The best way to determine if an emulator can work for you is to try it.

VMware is another option for getting the most out of your operating system(s). It allows you to run "virtual machines" under Linux. In other words, you can run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

Emulators and "virtual machines" are not flawless and I couldn't honestly say that they serve as a replacement for running software directly on an OS, but they are nice options to have.

Of course, you can always have multiple operating systems on a workstation, but keep in mind that booting from one OS to another takes a bit of time, which can be a major drawback to those of us who work on deadlines.

"I'd love to try Linux, but I am not really good with computers."

No operating system is easy. On the surface, an OS may seem simple to use and to customize, but most of us have had problems that seem impossible to solve, no matter which operating system we use. Thankfully, many workplaces have IT professionals to handle the idiosyncrasies.

In all honesty, I do not feel that Linux is any more difficult to use than other operating systems and, to its benefit, the "real" system (behind all of the pretty graphics of the surface user interface) is considered by many to be more reliable and stable than the most commonly used OS on the market. Based on my real world experience, I have to agree.

I am not a hacker or a system administrator. I have done technical support but most manuals make my head spin. I've only been using computers since 1991. I have only owned a PC since 1996. I'm not exactly a guru. Linux just makes sense to me.

Linux may not be right for everyone, but I do not see any harm in letting those of us who wish to use it in the workplace do so. Furthermore, if given a choice after some exposure to the operating system, I believe that more employees than one might think would choose a Linux workstation.

Comments? Email the author of this piece.

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