Living (and dying) with Linux in the workplace

A brief foray into Linux for the enterprise

Are you looking for a Windows alternative for serious office work? Many people are starting to wonder about their non-Microsoft operating system options, especially given Windows Vista's hefty hardware demands, upgrade costs and license restrictions. We've already examined using Mac OS X in the workplace; now, I take a hard look at Linux by using an enterprise distribution exclusively at work. I'm not simply playing with a test machine; I've been using Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10+ day in, day out to do my job as Computerworld's online managing editor in the U.S.

After several weeks, I can report that desktop Linux does appear ready for no-frills home users. But things get a bit more dicey for corporate users like me.

If your needs end with e-mail, simple (non-IE-optimized) Web browsing, word processing and spreadsheets, desktop Linux distros, such as SUSE and Ubuntu, are ready for you today -- even in the workplace. At the other end, if you're a high-end technologist, you've probably got the interest, aptitude and ability to get around nonsupport obstacles and dive deep in the guts of your kernel.

But if you're somewhere in between, well, as one of our Web developers cautioned me, there's a very steep learning curve in going beyond basic Linux use. If you're a Windows power user who needs applications beyond the basic office and communication tools, if you've been trained on them, customized them, written scripts for them and come to depend on them in your day-to-day work, you're going miss them.

In addition, if you've got a handheld, portable media player or other mobile device, chances are it's not as plug-and-play on Linux as it is with Windows.

That's not a knock on Linux as a piece of software. It's a problem of market share and clout. There's no company with Microsoft's marketing muscle cajoling major software firms, such as Adobe and Intuit, to support the platform.

To be fair, at least there's a possibility of hacking an application when it won't officially run on Linux, which is less often the case with Windows. And that might be a fun challenge at home. But I usually don't want to hack an application at the office. I need to get my work done.

First impressions

After years on Windows XP, it's kind of fun to see something new on my desktop. And after months of Microsoft hype, I'm happy to be checking out something that's not Vista.

My volunteer "IT admin," Computerworld's U.S. online special projects editor Joyce Carpenter, reports that the SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop setup was a snap.

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