Is Linux finally ready for corporate desktops?

The idea of using Linux on corporate desktops was a laughing matter only a few years ago, as the fledgling operating system began invading corporate data centers. It lacked wide application and driver support, and it was foreign to nontechnical employees familiar with Microsoft's Windows software.

But few at this week's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco are laughing anymore.

Instead, many IT staffers say they're gaining a familiarity with the operating system with an eye to the day when they may be putting it on their corporate desktops. Among them is Dan Pritchard, director of IT for life sciences company Entelos's been eyeing Linux on the desktop for the 90 users he supports, but still faces a hitch to any migration.

"Usually where it all falls apart is linking it to ... BlackBerries," which are used by many Entelos employees, said Pritchard. "If it could [handle] the Blackberries... we would probably move" to desktop Linux when the company's Windows maintenance contract comes up for renewal.

"It's the money that will get the executives to sign, given that Microsoft continues to do more and more maintenance [fee] increases," Pritchard said, noting that the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, has been delayed and will arrive after Entelos' current maintenance contract expires. That means the company will have to re-sign if it wants to go to Longhorn.

"That's going to be very disappointing for Microsoft users" who will have to sign expensive new deals to get the next Windows operating system, he said.

Alan Rees, president of Superior Technology Solutions, said he's bringing desktop Linux into his company within a month to gain experience with the operating system. "We're expecting that [desktop Linux is] the direction" clients will want to go, he said. "Linux is making headway, so we want to get in before the flood."

The company's major client is the California state government, he said, and he wants to give the state options with Linux. While state officials haven't asked for it specifically, "what they have said is, 'We want to lower our costs, and we're tired of paying for Unix,'" said Rees. "So generically they're looking at Linux."

Matt Fahrner, manager of network services at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse, said the US retailer has been running about 3,000 Linux desktop machines in about 360 stores across the US -- although there are still a few Windows users who need Microsoft Office. "We're encouraging the use [of Linux] throughout the enterprise," Fahrner said.

The company moved to Linux in 2000 for much of its retail IT infrastructure and is now migrating to SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 8 from Unix systems. Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse gives Linux users Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite or the OpenOffice.org suite as part of their desktop package. "Most of what we need to do, we can do" with the two open-source office suites, Fahrner said. "It's not a handicap."

IT managers for two other large user companies, who asked that they and their employers not be named, had differing expectations about the likelihood of deploying Linux on the desktop at their companies.

A vice president for IT at a large US grocery store chain said he will be using Linux in the next three months for a pilot project involving targeted in-store customer marketing programs. But the company isn't likely to move to Linux on the desktop because it has heavily discounted, long-term fixed Windows and Office pricing from Microsoft. "My personal philosophy on Linux is that you don't save money on the OS, but that you save money on the applications," he said.

However, a Linux systems engineer at a large US-based bank with more than 100,000 users said Linux on the desktop is very much a subject internally because of its promised cost savings. "In the banking environment, it's always about money," he said. "Minimize expenditures. You can point to ease of use, but lower cost to license is going to drive that." A pilot project is now set for next year, he said.

But challenges remain, include finding alternatives for proprietary Microsoft products, he said. "There are absolutely going to be issues. There's going to be a learning curve. I don't see at all that they're going to be insurmountable."

A panel discussion during the conference called "Linux on the Enterprise Desktop: Secrets of Success in Large-Scale Deployments" offered a host of suggestions for companies contemplating a switch.

First, there has to be a solid reason to make the migration, the panelists said. "You need to step back and ask why," said panelist Havoc Pennington, desktop development manager at Red Hat. "There has to be this driving motivation."

Also, the applications that users need must be available on Linux. Driver support and interoperability with users still running Windows is also important, as is making sure the support team is experienced with Linux before the migration begins, the panelists said.

J. Craig Manning, manager of IT at Cisco Systems, said that one of the largest challenges to Cisco's desktop Linux plans is application support from independent software vendors. A case-tracking system used by Cisco runs well on Windows, but not as well on Linux. "That's where we're having a lot of trouble, with the ISVs," he said. "Linux is growing up. Now we have to dress it up to go dating and get people to use it."

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