Product Review: Novell Linux Desktop heads to the office

Every new Linux distribution, particularly from an established vendor such as Novell's SuSE division, brings with it the question "Is it ready to take on Microsoft on the desktop?" We recently got a copy of the Novell Linux Desktop, which was created to offer an alternative corporate desktop operating system that meets the needs of most structured task workers.

What does a Windows alternative need to be a viable player? First, it has to play well with other Windows machines and servers. It should be able to share files and printers with little-to-no effort. Common application formats, such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint should be supported. Connectivity to corporate e-mail servers, including Microsoft Exchange, should just work.

NLD supports these requirements and more with only a few minor hiccups. The issues we had were minor, and all had a workaround. When NLD is installed, it gives the option of either the KDE or Gnome desktops. Gnome looks a lot like the last version of the Ximian desktop and is the closest in look and feel to Windows XP.

Novell has enhanced the Open Office product suite, including its Evolution for e-mail, contact and schedule management. We could open Word, Excel and PowerPoint files over the network without any trouble. The only glitch was with a few JPEG image files that included a file extension that NLD didn't recognize.

Windows networking is not yet completely seamless. We had some trouble browsing for network shares using the Nautilus utility under Gnome, although we could connect to a Windows share using the 'Connect to Server' menu option. In KDE, we had to enter the share name into an address bar. We would be happier if the process were smoother - especially if passwords were synchronized over the network. The Gnome Personal Settings tool works like the Control Panel in Windows and even has a "New Printer" wizard that makes it easy to connect to a shared printer on a Windows network.

There are ways to handle password synchronization between Linux and Windows, but NLD doesn't offer that out of the box. Another irritation was the default for user passwords to Data Encryption Standard encryption, which only supports passwords up to eight characters long. To enable longer passwords, manually select MD5 as the default encryption method.

NLD includes a Citrix ICA client and Windows Terminal Server RDP client. We could log on to a Windows 2003 Server box without problems, and it worked great. This might be the ticket for organizations to run legacy Windows applications from a Linux desktop. It will require a Windows Terminal Server Client Access License for each user needing to connect.

Novell's iFolder product makes it simple to synchronize files between multiple computers. The current release included with NLD (2.1) requires an iFolder server to function. Version 3.0, targeted for release early next year, also will operate in a peer-to-peer mode to facilitate workgroup collaboration. Novell released the development of iFolder into the open source community at last year's BrainShare.

Is NLD ready for the corporate desktop? Our answer is a qualified yes. Handling routine office chores using Open Office for word processing, Evolution for e-mail and Firefox for Web browsing works great. However, connecting to Windows networks still needs some work to become seamless.

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