Living with desktop Linux

We examine whether SuSE Linux Desktop is really a sensible Windows replacement for enterprises

The issue of Linux on the desktop has always attracted lively debate but until now most of the rhetoric has been largely theoretical, as no large organisations have ever voiced serious migration plans.

But now things appear to be changing. Last month, the City of Munich decided to invest in several thousand desktop installations of desktop Linux, deciding that the long-term advantages were such that they could reject a Microsoft bid that actually looked to be cheaper than the open-source option.

Linux companies are now facing real-world tests of the desktop improvements made over the past few years, although analysts including Gartner have cautioned it will be several years before the project's success or failure can be evaluated.

With all this in mind, a couple of weeks ago, ZDNet UK decided to examine whether a distribution of Linux -- in this case, SuSE Linux Desktop -- could really be a sensible Windows replacement for enterprises. After a couple of days' testing, we concluded that the latest generation of desktop Linux tools -- including improved Windows emulation, better fonts and non-technical wizards for setting up networks and printers -- have made the software surprisingly usable, as well as capable of integrating into a Windows-centric desktop environment. (For the full review, click here.)

Performance has greatly improved. Despite running the software on a machine that is far from top of the line, a 500MHz Pentium III with 256MB of RAM, applications were just as responsive as they had been under Windows XP. This is a far cry from earlier desktop Linux distributions, which needed some patience to deal with.

This came as a surprise mainly because Linux has been hyped since the late 1990s as a potential competitor for Windows on the desktop, with many advocates somehow able to overlook basic usability and interoperability problems, sometimes for ideological reasons.

In response to the huge amount of interest in the initial test, we decided to push the investigation a little further. This time around we ran SuSE Linux Desktop alongside Windows desktops in a production environment, on a primarily Windows network, for around two weeks. The idea was to see how well the software could hold up, not to heavy server loads or number-crunching, but to a relatively non-technical user who was just trying to get a job done in a Windows world.

Our conclusions were once again largely positive, with some new reservations and some positive surprises. After a challenging start, the system for the most part performed so well that it was easy to forget what underlying technology was being used. But when problems did crop up, they tended to take some time to solve:

  • Transferring files to or from the office server over the LAN browser, which runs on a technology called Samba that communicates with Windows networks, proved problematic. Samba had difficulty navigating the way permissions were set up on the network, and was unable to authorise us to read or write files on the server, although we were able to browse the network. The solution would be to change the way the network's permissions were set up -- something some companies would find unacceptable.

  • Several attempts to install SuSE Linux Desktop (SLD) failed to result in the appearance of the local-area network browser. This seemed to be down to a combination of bad install CDs and a bad CD-ROM drive, the software seemed to install without problems on two other systems.

    Communicating on the company Yahoo Messenger network meant using an open-source alternative, Gaim, but the version bundled with our copy of SLD was out-of-date. SuSE's online update feature solved this issue quickly.

  • There were difficulties cutting and pasting text to and from Mozilla. The problem seemed to be solvable by reloading in Mozilla or restarting the browser, but too much of this leads to the rubber room.

  • We found the personal information management (PIM) tools flawed, at least when used with a Palm. We could not get KDE's address-book tool to display all the needed fields for some entries.

  • On the plus side, we tried a couple of applications that we found impressive, and which in some cases offered a better user experience than Windows.

  • We used the suite, rather than StarOffice, and were surprised at how much better OpenOffice seemed to be -- or, at least, better than the particular version of StarOffice included with SLD. OpenOffice seemed much more stable, launched quickly, and presented an attractive interface. It was comparable in ease-of-use, features and performance to Office XP. It still doesn't include a macro recorder, but the user experience was such an improvement over StarOffice and CrossOver Office that we didn't mind the sacrifice.

  • Online application install tools such as SuSE's own online update, Ximian Red Carpet and the Advanced Package Tool (with the Synaptic user interface) offered a quick and user-friendly way to install a vast range of programs, and eliminated the typical dependency problems associated with adding components to Linux.

  • Linux desktop software, in its current state of evolution, is probably suitable for many large organisations, especially those willing to invest the necessary time and energy to ensure the networked elements run smoothly. For organisations interested in making the shift to Linux, whether to escape the Microsoft licensing regime or for other reasons, it may be worth the effort.