Desktop Linux for small business

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

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.