Desktop Linux for small business

Desktop Linux for small business

Summary: Is your business ready to take the open source plunge? We test five leading desktop Linux distributions and come up with one winner.

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As desktop Linux becomes ever more professional, and with Microsoft still a year away from shipping its new Vista version of Windows, could now be the time to go open-source on the desktop? Of course, circumstances will vary from company to company, but if you're ready to make the move, there's a good crop of Linux distributions ready to accommodate your needs.

What we did
We set ourselves the task of installing and configuring various desktop and notebook systems with five of the leading Linux distributions: Mandriva Linux 2006, Novell Linux Desktop 9, Red Hat Desktop 4, SUSE Linux 10 and Ubuntu Linux 5.10. We then attempted to implement some basic business tools for each distro: connect an email client to Microsoft's Exchange server; print on a networked printer; and set up instant messaging.

For each Linux distribution, we noted the smoothness of the install process, the abundance and integration of application software, and the depth of the support offering. Along the way, we got a feel for each distro's stability, and how it would feel to do real work with it.

What we found
All five distributions come with a good -- and very similar -- selection of core applications, including OpenOffice for office productivity, Gaim for instant messaging and Evolution for email, contact management and calendar functionality. All of the distros are well packaged and install on standard PC hardware without too much trouble. Some, notably SUSE and Ubuntu, also worked well on our test notebook -- which might surprise those who think of Linux as purely a desktop or server OS.

In each case, we wrote the actual review on the test system, exchanged documents and exported the review in RTF format. During the whole exercise, we only experienced one system crash (on Mandriva, as it happens).

There is quite a lot of variety in the installation systems, with Novell's YaST2 a particularly shining example, performing a good job in a clearly understandable way, and returning as a system management tool in the operating system itself. Mandriva's install tool was also good -- particularly in areas like printer setup. If only printer setup was so easy in the operating system itself!

Most of the distros include a good update facility that will keep the software current by automatically downloading patches and new versions, prompting the user to install them.

And the winner is...
We emerged from our Linux experience with a strong preference for Ubuntu Linux 5.10, with SUSE Linux 10 a close second. Both did everything we required of them, and both have very low setup costs. Ubuntu, in particular, costs absolutely nothing to purchase.

When choosing an operating system for your business, local support may be crucial. For instance, there may be Windows applications that need to be ported, or run in a Windows emulator on Linux. In which case you may need an integrator with experience in your particular line of business.

If you prefer to deal with a consultancy-like support service, then Novell Linux Desktop 9, may be a good move, while the very corporate Red Hat Desktop 4, could prove a sensible option for companies with large numbers of desktops.

Our Editor's Choice for the small business, however, is the solid, well integrated and free Ubuntu Linux 5.10.

Compare products

Product Price
Product Price
Ubuntu Linux 5.10

Ubuntu Linux 5.10

Ubuntu is a well integrated, practical and absolutely free Linux distribution. There may be worries about support, but the Canonical organisation is building a good reputation and the head of steam in the wider Ubuntu community should provide decent local support from third parties, too.

24 Nov, 2005

£
Mandriva Linux 2006

Mandriva Linux 2006

Mandriva occupies the middle ground between consumer-focused and business-orientated Linux distributions. It's generally well put together, but lacks some details.

21 Nov, 2005

£
Red Hat Desktop 4

Red Hat Desktop 4

Businesses that need to support a reasonable number (>10) of Linux PCs may find that Red Hat Desktop 4 delivers an attractive total cost of ownership (TCO).

15 Nov, 2005

£
SUSE Linux 10

SUSE Linux 10

SUSE Linux 10 is a full Windows/Microsoft Office replacement on one DVD at a bargain price. Home users could do a lot worse, and even IT managers may learn to love it.

14 Nov, 2005

£
Novell Linux Desktop 9

Novell Linux Desktop 9

If you manage a lot of corporate desktops, then Novell's Linux Desktop is well worth a look -- particularly if you're happy with ZENworks. Linux pricing and Novell's corporate-style support could make this a useful option for business.

22 Nov, 2005

£

Topics: Operating Systems, Reviews, Software

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46 comments
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  • Ubuntu Linux is complex to install if we compare to mandriva or suse

    also on many old computer i itested, Ubuntu don't work... don't detect video or have problem with the cdrom... with suse and mandriva, we don't have this trouble
    anonymous
  • Not to be picky, but it's Ubuntu 5.10, not Ubuntu 5.1. The versioning is in the format year.month. Reviews look better then the products they're reviewing are correctly named.
    anonymous
  • Ok, so how can you even say that SUSE isn't free or completely without cost??? You can get every line of the code for free, download the latest ISO from the opensuse.org site or from Novell.com, and you can get updates without having to register at all.

    The exact reason I WOULDN'T choose Ubuntu is that it can't really be depended on that you'll get support, not from a reputable source like you can the others.

    I question your results, it seems to be another Ubuntu-gasm that everyone is so prone to, it's a good OS, but really not that suitable for business use.
    anonymous
  • I notice you completely stepped around Xandros. In my experience Xandros is the easiest to setup (4 step installation), integrates with existing Windows Domains and has all the business style apps you will need.
    anonymous
  • My experience with Mandriva (Mandrake) is that it is very reluctant to write to removable media. I managed once to burn a CD with Mandriva2006 but subsequent attempts failed. K3b occasionally announced that it had completed the burn but in every case the disk proved to be blank
    Writing to a floppy with Konqueror is impossible but mtools and tar work from the command line..
    anonymous
  • ubuntu!! come off it. u are better off with Xandros for a SMB. Xandros has better support and is pretty good for work environment. With their ever increasing partner list, i am surprised that you never thought of that.
    anonymous
  • CentOS <http://www.centos.org/> is an OS that is rebuilt from the
    publicly available sources from here:

    http://ftp.redhat.com/pub/redhat/linux/enterprise/

    It is totally free, but unlike SUSE Pro and Unbuntu, it has the lifetime
    and release cycle of an Enterprise Linux distribution.

    Please install CentOS-4 and compare it to the other Enterprise
    offerings. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
    anonymous
  • What about MEPIS???? After trying most of the top ten, I keep coming back to MEPIS. Super fast install and always works.
    anonymous
  • Your reviewer should have taken another look at PCLinuxOS9.2 or 9.1. This distro runs rings around Ubuntu. The latest version 9.2 has a much better packaging system and it works right out of the box with not much tweaking. What some of these reviewers need to do is go beyond the hype. All the distros mentioned have been hyped ad nauseum.
    anonymous
  • If you are trying to decide which distribution provides the best business desktop I don't really understand why you would leave out Xandros in your comparison when they have been focused solely on the desktop since it began as Corel Linux. No other distribution integrates into business with existing Windows domain infrastructure as well as Xandros. No other distribution out of the box will autodetect a MS Office CD and runs the installation program.
    anonymous
  • Have you not heard of the excellent MEPIS? This distro is absolutely superb. I've tried several distro's but returned to MEPIS every time.
    anonymous
  • Ubuntu is just walking a great moment,even the topscore visits on distrowatch seems due to overlink to their website...I don't see any spectacular tool or add to make it prefer to a pure debian,mepis or kanotix. There is not any buildin tool or panel to manage your pc out of gnome standard ones..I have tried about 20 distros and I always come back to debian based ones;if you need something really easy,really stable,really working out of the box Mepis is the answer, second choise Kanotix,more fun and fast!
    For my job in the hotel all pc's are running Mepis: no problem :-)
    Ciao Ciao
    anonymous
  • It would be nice to have included wireless in the review. Wireless is becoming more and more prevalent and more people are using WPA to protect it. A good review on the various distributions, on Dell and HP desktops and laptops, with Wireless G, WLAN wrappers, WEP, and a comprehensive WPA battery would be very much appreciated. To do it in an environment that ecompasses Windows and Linux would be even better. Use both the Windows PKI architecture and the Opensource PKI architecture, and use mschapv2 authentication for the WPA. It is important to also discuss central authentication, authorization, and auditing with small businesses too and that apparently was not. Central file shares through SAMBA to windows server, NFS mounts, or other means should have a place here too. By just saying that one was easier to install and manage independently from the whole business does not go far enough to constitue a really decent review.
    anonymous
  • It is good to hear Ubuntu getting the credit it is due. I have deployed Ubuntu, Or more acurately Kubuntu, On many business networks with zero problems to date. It is by far the easiest and most reliable distro of linux I have ever used, and I have used all of the top 20. All of the distros have a strong point, or an area where they excel. With Ubuntu, it is everything. Whether you are building a server, workstation, thin client setup, desktop, multimedia station, PVR, or whatever you need, Ubuntu just works.

    Like I have said, all of the other distros are good and deserve respect. Ubuntu is just better.
    anonymous
  • Mepis is worth considering for small business. I can spend more time with the client (than with the machine).
    anonymous
  • The post saying Ubuntu or Kubuntu "just work" isn't true. I say this with respect for the OS. With Linux always evolving, I am always open, to advancements and improvements. In my opinion the top two are MEPIS and PCLinuxOS. They install faster than just about any other distro. MEPIS does "just work" with networking, playing movie trailers, the plugins are there and working, except for dvds which is a minor point. You may say these are somewhat bloated, but so remove what you don't need. These are as complete as nearly possible, stable and in case of some disaster, in 12 minutes or less you're up and running again. Ubuntu needs configuring and is a longer install. A few years ago, Yoper was King. I couldn't figure that out because at the time I believe pre-MEPIS there was Knoppix which I felt deserved the credit.
    Fedora, Mandriva and on have configuration issues that takeup valuable time. I realize we latch on to our favorites and some love Gnome and some love KDE... but Kubuntu doesn't just work. I'm not slamming it either. I love Debian and will sway to the best fastet distro there is. The MEPIS install is one of the easiest around. What other distro offers such an easy fix to re-configure X. I am suprised by the choices for this comparison. I am often confused as to why MEPIS the 'ONE'. Ubuntu has a great website! And states it will always bee free and open. This is good. MEPIS is still better.

    Please anyone reading this, try MEPIS. Try others too. I will. But I firmly believe MEPIS is the Top distro around. After using it for free for many years, not long ago I sent in a donation to show my appreciation.
    anonymous
  • Xandros is far and away the hands-down winner in the Desktop arena. We've evaluated the distros mentioned in your comparison, plus many others. We also placed them in a classroom setting with teenage gamers.

    Xandros with it's seemless Windows SMB integration, was by far the Linux Desktop of choice. We've had varying successes with other distros installations at customer sites, but no praise equaled that of Xandros, so we ripped out all the others.

    No dual-booting to run Windows Apps, just insert CD and up pops the Windows setup program.

    -obj
    anonymous
  • WAKE UP DEARS

    XANDROS IS THE NAME WHERE LINUX IS THE GAME!!!

    WHY?

    Because they understand the mass, thats the secret which noboy understood...
    anonymous
  • Our small business has used Xandros as our default Linux distro, going way back to when it was still packaged as Corel Linux. We use it to run technical and in-house software. It seems surprising to me that you would miss reviewing this distro, which is professionally packaged and, I believe, really is targeted for business users. (See, for instance, their automatic inclusion of CrossOver Office).
    anonymous
  • Glad to hear love for Xandros and Mepis, but Ubuntu works best for me. Part of the experience for a medium newbie like myself has to do with the help infrastructure, and I personally found the Ubuntu forums and FAQs superior and friendlier than anything else out there. Mepis also gave me trouble on one of my desktops, and I've had nothing but easy installations with Ubuntu (in spite of its text-based installer that everyone seems to hate). But these are merely my opinions. Ultimately, I'm just glad to hear people getting excited about Linux on the desktop and in the small business world, where it belongs! Great article!
    anonymous