Is the future of desktop Linux going thin?

update Although thin clients help ease Linux PC management, Gartner analyst says challenges with the open source desktop linger on.

update While the thin-client approach makes Linux PCs easier to manage, there are still kinks to iron out with desktop Linux operating system (OS), according to market analyst Gartner.

Last month, thin-client software provider released its 2X TerminalServer for Linux, an open source terminal server that lets Linux desktop users run both Linux and Windows applications over dial-up and LAN (local area network) connections.

2X CEO Nikolaos Makris said in a statement that it will require a terminal server approach for Linux to penetrate the desktop market. "Only with the more advanced thin-client approach, will Linux be able to outdo Windows fat clients in a company's network."

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Makris explained that the main problem with Linux desktops is that they run as "administration-intensive, virus- and error-prone fat clients" in a network.

"A terminal server for Linux provides users with a secure, easily accessible and centrally manageable personal Linux desktop," he said.

Sandeep Menon, director of Linux business at Novell West Asia disagreed, noting that remote management can also be enabled on rich clients. He holds the view that both thin clients as well as rich clients, will co-exist for different customer segments, at least for a while.

"Today, if one is a power user who works on multiple applications at a time and deals with a lot of local data, a rich client will still be the preferred alternative," he explained. "However, if the use is simple and restricted, for example, as retail point-of-sale terminals, the thin client may be a much better alternative."

Menon also rebuffed suggestions that Linux desktops are virus prone. "It is a well-known fact that today, Linux on any kind of system is far less vulnerable to viruses, than traditional proprietary environments. And once up and running, Linux systems actually require very little intervention, unless the system administrator actively needs to make some changes," he said.

However, Dion Wiggins, Gartner's vice president and research director, noted that adopting a thin-client approach does not resolve the bugbears that have plagued desktop Linux.

"The bottom line is why would this be any better?" Wiggins said. "At the end of the day, Linux has many issues on the desktop than just being a terminal."

The analyst explained that the key problems with desktop Linux stem from having two competing desktop environments--K Desktop Environment (KDE) and Gnome. "The moment you develop for two [environments], there's obviously going to be extra work, testing and time-to-market," he said.

About 2X TerminalServer
2X TerminalServer for Linux employs a compression protocol known as NX X-Windows.
X Windows, the windowing system commonly used in Linux and Unix operating systems, is highly bandwidth-intensive and does not work well over low-bandwidth connections.
2X said: "The NX protocol on the other hand, compresses the X-Window protocol and enables users to run a complete Linux desktop with Linux and Windows applications, over slow dial-up links.
"On LANs, it means a much higher number of clients can be supported without affecting network speed."

    Paul Kangro, applied technology specialist at Novell Australia, noted that one of the key aspects of Linux is the availability of choice. He added that competition between KDE and Gnome has accelerated the development of Linux desktops.

    Kangro said: "Novell decided that we will ship both KDE and Gnome with Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, so no decision [to choose one over the other] needs to be made by the end user as both are supported.

    "The fundamental difference is that KDE is written using C++ and Gnome is written using C. Just as any developer needs to decide on what language they will write any given application, the same decision needs to be made for Linux desktop applications."

    While Wiggins acknowledged that the thin-client path can resolve desktop management blues, the same goals may also be met with virtualization technology, where centrally-managed virtualized OS environments are delivered to user desktops.

    Still, he noted that the Linux server platform has become more standardized than it had been in the past, and the same will happen with its desktop counterpart over time.

    In April this year, the Free Standards Group (FSG) released Linux Standards Base (LSB) 3.1, the first version of the LSB to include explicit Linux desktop application support. FSG is a nonprofit organization that develops and promotes open source software standards.

    Major Linux vendors have said they will comply with LSB 3.1 in the coming months, according to the FSG.

    According to a Gartner report in June this year, the overall thin-client computing market will continue to grow at a steady pace during the next several years. The analyst noted that this growth will be fueled by falling thin-client terminal prices, the inevitable need for users to replace aging terminal devices, and improvements in thin-client software primarily from Microsoft and Citrix.

    Worldwide thin-client hardware shipments grew 38 percent in 2005 compared with the previous year, topping 2.2 million units, Gartner said. This was the strongest growth reported for the market since 2000.