- Well-supported enterprise desktop OS
- useful bundle of applications
- good network printer support
- No Exchange connector provided with Evolution
- relatively expensive licensing structure for small installations
Red Hat Desktop is such a business-orientated Linux distribution that it's only available in bundles of 10 licences, along with a Linux server and online management from Red Hat. Buy 50 desktops and you get the online management in your building, run on its own server. The operating system is 'closed down' and applications and IT staff can be certified -- an approach that's either 'lock-in' or 'making a business-grade Linux' according to your viewpoint.
Red Hat's enterprise credentials are evident when you download the product. The site offers a huge and comprehensive list, which seems to include every version of every operating system Red Hat has ever made. Company spokespeople explain that enterprise customers, with perhaps hundreds of desktops, won't adopt a new version at the drop of a hat (whatever its colour), so having all the versions online is part of supporting enterprise customers at whatever stage they may be.
As a result, the hardest part of installing Red Hat turned out to be picking the right version from all the server and desktop versions listed on the site. Eventually, we downloaded and burned the three disks for Red Hat Desktop 4 -- the desktop version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 -- and installed them.
As with other Linux distros, the install process is relatively straightforward -- the most interesting parts are partitioning the hard disk and choosing desktop options. We picked the GNOME (2.8) desktop environment and sat back to see what we'd be provided with. Our testbed platform was a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 HP desktop with 512MB of RAM, although support for ACPI power management means that Red Hat Desktop 4 should work well on notebooks too.
The applications are a sensible selection, put together in a useful way, behind a non-standard set of icons. Firefox (1.0.7) is there for Web browsing, Evolution (2.0.2) for email and calendar, and OpenOffice (1.1.2) for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation work. The Gaim IM client is also present and correct, but Red Hat asserts its business-like credentials by including absolutely no games at all: perhaps the only non-business item is the Sound Juicer CD ripper.
It's difficult to structure a taskbar that can satisfy both logicians and end users. Red Hat's approach is to define what we do as either an Application or an Action. Actions roughly equates to the Windows Start button, and includes the option to Run an Application; meanwhile, Applications includes System Settings and Preferences.
The taskbar is pre-populated with icons for Web browsing, as well as for presentations, word processing and spreadsheets in OpenOffice. The browser icon doesn't match the normal one for Firefox -- perhaps because it could be made to point to the Konqueror browser, which is also included. However, it's a simple matter to drag the Firefox icon from the menu to the taskbar and delete the incumbent.
The system found our Windows network and connected successfully, while Gaim discovered all our buddies on different IM systems. Linking up to Exchange from the Evolution email client was tricky, as the Exchange connector is not present; however, we managed POP/SMTP email without any problems.
OpenOffice is implemented with some thought to making users of Microsoft Office feel at home: the word-count feature, for example, is available as Alt-T-W, as well as Alt-F-I.
Unlike some other distros, Red Hat Desktop is fine with remote printers -- all it needed was the IP address and printer model to use HP's JetDirect to print directly to a networked HP LaserJet in the ZDNet UK office.
Red Hat has an automatic update feature, similar to Microsoft's Windows Update. A red exclamation mark appears in the top right-hand corner of the screen if there are updates to install. Clicking on it downloads the updates and prompts you to select which ones to install. On successful completion, the red exclamation market becomes a blue tick.
Support options are presented with an enterprise flavour: versions come out on a predictable 18-month timescale, and Red Hat promises to support each version for seven years. Telephone support is available between 9am and 5pm on weekdays.
As far as pricing is concerned, you can buy a standalone desktop version of Red Hat -- Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS, for €143 (~£96) for an annual licence, or €239 (~£161) with a fuller support package. Red Hat Desktop is available in bundles that include a licence for Red Hat Linux Enterprise AS server and access to management and updates from Red Hat: 10 Red Hat Desktop seats cost €1,999 (~£1,346), while 50 desktops cost €10,800 (~£7,274), with extension packs of 50 licences costing €2,799 (~£1,885; see here for more details). Depending on the options chosen, support can be round the clock.
Red Hat Desktop is sensible to the point of austerity, but practical in the way it supports updates and other features. It's not for individuals or very small businesses, but larger companies who calculate the total cost of ownership (TCO) may well find it worth considering.