Linux desktop growing up and eyeing corporate users

If employees at Backcountry.com want a Windows desktop they better have a good excuse, because the standard issue is Linux.

While some might think the backcountry-gear outfitter has been out in the woods a bit too long, the reality is that Linux desktops are starting to show maturity, starting to improve their looks and starting to find a niche behind corporate walls.

"People have to justify Windows to get it, and even then I challenge them a bit," says Dave Jenkins, the chief technology officer for Backcountry.com. Nearly 70 percent of the online retailer's 200 or so desktops are Linux, including multiuser machines stationed in the company's warehouse. Those on Windows desktops typically need it to support Excel and the macros that run only inside that spreadsheet.

Jenkins's conclusion is that Linux is starting to make its case as a viable alternative to Windows.

Helping that notion are major vendors, including IBM and Sun who are putting a focus on the desktop, including IBM's release earlier this year of a full Notes client that runs on Linux desktops.

And while no pragmatist in the Linux community will use the word "replacement," the confidence level is up given Novell's recent release of its desktop SUSE Enterprise Linux 10, the impending release next year of Red Hat 5.0, and the growing popularity of the easy-to-use Ubuntu distribution and a myriad of other Linux desktop versions from Xandros to SimplyMEPIS.

Another driver may well indeed be the broken promises of Microsoft's Vista operating system, which ships this month after five years of development and will arrive with only a small percentage of its original marquee features.

"Vista has reopened the buying decision," says Justin Steinman, director of product marketing for Linux and open source solutions at Novell. "Customers are saying if I have to do this, what are my other choices. Our strategy is not to take out Microsoft; our goal is present alternatives to Microsoft."

And Novell thinks it has a strong alternative in SUSE Enterprise Linux 10.

The desktop has an Office suite built off the Open Office project, and the desktop includes the Firefox browser, Gaim instant messaging client, Beagle desktop search engine, Xen virtualization and the Evolution e-mail and calendaring client that integrates with Microsoft Exchange Server.

Perhaps more important to corporate IT executives, SUSE 10 integrates with Microsoft's Active Directory and includes a management infrastructure built around ZenWorks.

But the most innovative portion may be a 3-D animated user interface, called the Spinning Cube, which can be rotated to show up to 365 workspaces or windows.

Novell says the innovative interface can be configured to support such desktop environments as call centers.

"We tried to innovate around the edges; we know no one wants to reinvent how they interact with their desktop," Steinman says.

But while observers give Novell and others kudos on their innovations and evolution of the desktop environment, the decision is complex for even seasoned open source converts.

"Our desktops are too deeply imbedded in the Microsoft world for us to consider [a Linux] deployment," says David Whiles, director of information systems at Midland (Texas) Memorial Hospital. Whiles, who has worked with Linux for 10 years, recently deployed a clustered open source Electronic Medical Records application -- a US$7.1 commitment to open source and Linux. He also runs Web server and e-mail on Linux, but he says, "we don't have any plans now to deploy Linux on the desktop."

Some observers think it is the European market that will reach out to Linux desktops before U.S. companies start to listen en masse.

"Overseas markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China seem ripe because you might see more of it in government or in specific organizations reacting to mandates," says Dana Gardner, principal analyst of Interarbor Solutions. "The economics of [the Linux Desktop] in the U.S. makes more sense in small- to medium-sized businesses where you can give users a solution or service-based IT with features such as remote administration."

The overseas market it finding faith in LiMux, the Linux desktop-migration project executed by the government in Munich, Germany. The government plans to have 80 percent of its desktops converted to a Debian-based Linux by 2008, according to a story in late October by the German news site Heise Online.

The online site quoted Munich's Mayor Christine Strobel, "I am not a computer geek, but I must admit that it was easy to switch to the new software."

The sites also reported that Munich has migrated 200 desktops and plans to move 14,000 more in the next two years.

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