Originally Published: Saturday, 23 October 1999 Author: Scott Nipp
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux on the Desktop

Is Linux ready to hack it on the desktop? This is a question that seems to be drawing a lot of focus lately. Everyone in the Information Systems world knows what Linux is, and how it has recently been making waves as an affordable, stable, and reliable server side operating system. This is very true. Linux however has always been viewed as a "geek's" operating system requiring a high level of technical understanding. This however is very untrue thanks to the ongoing development effort of several popular projects....

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Is Linux ready to hack it on the desktop? This is a question that seems to be drawing a lot of focus lately. Everyone in the Information Systems world knows what Linux is, and how it has recently been making waves as an affordable, stable, and reliable server side operating system. This is very true. Linux however has always been viewed as a "geek's" operating system requiring a high level of technical understanding. This however is very untrue thanks to the ongoing development effort of several popular projects.

Linux gets its high level of stability from its Unix background. Linux is based on the Unix operating system, which had been under non-stop development and improvement for quite literally decades now. This constant development has produced what is arguably the most stable operating system in the world today. Unfortunately, this foundation upon Unix has also brought to Linux a very high level of complexity. This complexity has, in the past, not been hidden from the user which is extremely intimidating for the uninitiated. Recently however, numerous Open Source projects have taken aim at this very issue.

The "Window Manager" is the nice pretty Graphical User Interface which most of us have come to be familiar with on the Macintosh and Windows based PC. This has traditionally been one of the big perceived weaknesses of most Unix based operating systems. Unix began as a character based operating system requiring the user to manually input strings of commands to perform various functions. Over the last several years a couple of large scale Open Source projects have made great strides in providing the same level of convenience and functionality in Unix Window Managers as you would expect on a Macintosh or Windows machine. This functionality includes features such as "drag and drop" between applications, familiar desktop shortcuts and menus, and a level of intuitiveness never before seen on a Unix platform. The Window Manager is the interface between the person and the machine which facilitates everything the person does. The recent advances in these interfaces makes Linux a much stronger candidate as a desktop platform.

Applications support is one of the other critical issues when considering a selecting a desktop operating system. Will you be able to run your necessary business applications on the proposed operating system? With Linux the answer to this question depends greatly on the nature of your business, and the specific applications which you need to run. The good news is, for the most part, anything web based, from e-mail to Java to Telnet, Linux fits the bill to a tee. This type of desktop has been proven in some large nationwide deployments such as Burlington Coat Factory using Linux systems in all there retail outlets nationwide. The not so good news comes in the form of other proprietary applications. There are several productivity suites available for Linux at this time, such as StarOffice, KOffice, and the soon-to-be-released Corel WordPerfect Office for Linux. These productivity suites offer the applications which you would expect from this type of product, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, and more. Furthermore, these office suites typically offer limited file compatibility with other office suites such as Microsoft Office. This allows an organization to interact with outside organizations using MS Office file formats if absolutely necessary. The application issue depends greatly on your business needs. Your business needs certain applications to run, and if these applications or suitable substitutes are available then there is no compelling reason that your organization cannot implement Linux as a desktop solution.

Interoperability with other existing systems in your organization is another critical issue for a desktop operating system. Linux offers the widest possible range of support in this area. A Linux desktop has the ability to mount and access files from most other operating systems such as other Unixes, Microsoft, Novell and more. This high level of interoperability means that you do not have to completely replace your existing infrastructure, instead you can gradually implement Linux into your organization without having to worry about not having access to necessary resources.

Linux has long been accepted as a reliable server platform. The recent advances in application support and user interface have helped to make Linux a good option for desktop systems also. The important thing to remember is that there is no all or nothing answer that can be given to the question of whether Linux is right for your organization. The implementation of a new operating system is something that must be evaluated on a case by case basis. Linux does have the capability to provide organizations with a high quality desktop operating system. The big question is, "Is Linux the right fit for your organization?"

Scott Nipp is a Technical Analyst at Sprint Paranet. He spends his time there fighting the good fight, advocating Linux to his managers and customers.





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