Desktop management: Solaris or Novell?

commentary On the surface, the Novell Linux Desktop and Java Desktop System offer the same value for the same price, and under the same game rules. A look at where they diverge.

commentary On the surface, Novell's NLD (Novell Linux Desktop) and Sun's Java Desktop System (JDS) offer the same value for the same price, and under the same game rules.

For US$50 per year, each delivers an operating system and enough productivity and communications applications to satisfy most business users' needs. Updates and upgrades are included in the annual subscription price.

But the one area of interest to businesses where the two companies' desktop offerings are still experiencing a fit-and-finish problem is in their centralised management. "Management," as described here, refers to the control of a desktop's configuration (applications it can run, network resources it has access to, etc.) as well as the ability to distribute software and patches to it through some sort of automated infrastructure. Because of how recently their desktop strategies were forged, both companies lack a single, cohesive approach to the desktops they manage.

One key difference between Novell's and Sun's strategies is the desktops that each support. Before Linux had entered Novell's world, the company established a core competency in centrally managing Windows workstations. Once Novell acquired SuSE Linux, adopted a more pro-open source philosophy, and eventually committed to a desktop version of Linux, the open source OS was added to its "list" of supported desktops. Now, when it comes to Novell, you can think Windows and Linux.

Sun, on the other hand, strictly supports the desktop it peddles (the Java Desktop System) and there are two version of it: one for Linux and one for Solaris. As I noted earlier, Sun's JDS includes the operating system. In the case of JDS/Linux, Novell's SuSE Linux is under the hood. But, since Sun's primarily reliance on SuSE Linux is for the Linux kernel and a few kernel accoutrements, nothing prevents Sun from switching to another kernel (Debian, for example), or even providing one of its own. In fact, that is essentially what Sun did when it came out with the Solaris version of JDS. Therefore, in the Sun world, you can manage JDS/Linux or JDS/Solaris -- but not Windows.

Based on this information alone, you might draw a couple of conclusions. First, you might conclude that Novell's support for both Windows and Linux desktops can be an advantage to companies that are running a blended environment, or that are looking for a smooth transition from Windows to Linux on the desktop without too much upheaval on the management front. On the Sun side, you might conclude that it doesn't matter which version of JDS you give to your users -- the Linux version or the Solaris version -- because it's all centrally managed from one place. (Incidentally, the Solaris version is only certified to run on a handful of AMD-based systems that are manufactured by Sun, some of which are available on eBay.)

As it turns out, either conclusion would be premature.

For starters, Sun makes JDS/Linux available under two different frameworks. One is a single-user framework where businesses must keep the individual copies updated through Sun's Java System Update Service (JSUS). The other is a multi-user framework where the central management software (Linux or Solaris) used to manage the distribution of updates to JDS/Linux workstations is run by a company's internal IT department. The management software for managing a bunch of JDS/Linux workstations comes at no cost.

Here's where it gets complicated. Although you have a choice of staying internal or going to Sun to manage JDS/Linux workstations, you do not have that choice with JDS/Solaris (currently only available on Solaris 9). Sun only makes JDS/Solaris 9 available in the single-user framework which in turn means that there's no way to centrally manage it. There's another twist. The JSUS service that single-user JDS/Linux users rely on to keep their systems up-to-date (much the same way Windows Update works for Windows users) is not the same service that single-user JDS/Solaris users use. In other words, if you have a mixed environment of JDS/Linux and JDS/Solaris users, they must keep their systems updated in different ways. Whereas JDS/Linux users use JSUS, JDS/Solaris users must use product called PatchPro.

At Novell, the situation is no better. Novell may use the same name -- ZENworks -- to describe the products that manage, respectively, Windows and Linux workstations. But the name is pretty much the only thing that the two separate management products -- one for managing NLD, the other for managing Windows workstations -- have in common. The full name of the management product for managing Windows workstations is ZENworks Desktop Management. The full name of the management product for managing Novell's Linux products is called ZENworks Linux Management. The latter management software is, according to Novell spokesperson Kevan Barney, a rebranded version of Ximian Red Carpet. Red Carpet was a centralised Linux management product sold by Ximian prior to Novell's acquisition of the company.

One minor difference between the way Novell centrally manages Linux desktops and the way the Sun does is reflected in their respective costs. Above and beyond the US$50-per-year subscription fee that companies must pay per seat, Novell charges US$18 per seat per year for the ZENworks client-side agent that stays in communication with the central management server (which runs on Linux and is free since you must pay for each client). In contrast, Sun does not charge extra to manage JDS/Linux, which gives Sun a cost advantage, especially in large shops.

Like Sun's JDS, Novell's NLD can also be updated, Windows-update style, through a central service on Novell's Web site. Novell activated the site just before it introduced NLD. According to Barney, as a testimony to the scalability of ZENworks Linux Management, the update service itself is nothing more than an instantiation of the same management server that businesses would use for their desktops.

The companies are well aware of their bifurcated management strategies. Both Sun and Novell have said that they're looking to simplify their rather complicated desktop management portfolios through consolidation of technologies and brands. Until that happens, when you hear either company making a big deal about how easy it is to manage their *nix-based desktops, read the fine print.

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