- Cost-effective business-orientated operating system/application software bundle
- highly customisable.
- Too much tinkering still required for non-technical users
- LAN browsing functionality needs to improve.
To investigate SuSE's Linux Desktop, which is based on the company's Linux Enterprise Server technology, we ran it alongside a number of Windows systems in a 'live' editorial production environment for around two weeks. The idea was to see how well this business-oriented operating system/application software bundle worked for a moderately technical user working in a Windows-dominated world.We emerged from the process having had some pleasant surprises, but with some reservations too. After a challenging start, the system generally performed so well that it was easy to forget the underlying technology being used. But when problems did crop up, they tended to take some time to solve.
Installation & setup
The first troubles we ran into were in re-installing the software from scratch onto a dual-boot system with Windows XP running on a separate hard drive. This step was needed, according to SuSE, in order to install a feature that had been forgotten in an earlier installation -- the LAN browser. But several attempts to install SuSE Linux Desktop (SLD) failed to result in the appearance of the elusive feature, while other system components mysteriously disappeared, leading to much head-scratching and many further installation attempts. In the end, this seemed to be down to a combination of bad install CDs and a bad CD-ROM drive; the software installed without problems on two other systems. Once SLD was successfully in place, we faced our next problem: finding a way to communicate on the Yahoo Messenger network used by ZDNet UK. Yahoo supplies a Unix client, but SuSE users must use a package designed for Red Hat's distribution. This does not get on at all well with SuSE's package installation tool, YaST2. As is often the case in the Linux world, an open-source alternative to the proprietary software is available -- in this case Gaim, a chat client compatible with the messaging networks of AOL, Yahoo and others. Gaim was even included on the SLD setup CDs, allowing YaST2 to add it with a couple of mouse clicks. Unfortunately, the version on the CD was out of date, and a bug kept it from signing onto the Yahoo network. This is where SuSE's online update feature comes into play. The online update is not designed to install new programs, but if you need a quick upgrade to an existing application, this feature will often be able to provide it, as well as the latest operating system bug fixes and security patches. Access is through a paid support deal with SuSE, which most organisations will have as a matter of course. In our test, patches were downloaded and installed with a minimum of hassle, although we were instructed to restart a process by typing in a shell command -- something that would scare many users.
Automatic software installation
The online update tool is not guaranteed to have all the latest software, however, and does not completely solve what can still be a major headache for Linux users: installing software. Fortunately there are several alternatives available. If Windows desktop systems are cheaply-made, assembly-line automobiles, more or less well-built, all exactly alike aside from the odd optional leather seat or cup-holder, then Linux can feel more like a hand-built Rolls Royce, using more or less the same parts as another Rolls, but fundamentally an individually-crafted machine. One of the side-effects of this situation is that an application packaged for one distribution won't necessarily install flawlessly on another, or even on another version of the same distribution -- as we discovered when poking around for a more recent Gaim package to install on SLD. Applications can generally be found in the form of a package, using a format such as RPM (Red Hat Package Management), which includes all the components needed to make the application run on a particular distribution. However, if no package is available for your particular distribution and version, you may find yourself hunting down those components yourself. Much of the time, the problem can be avoided by sticking with what's on vendors' CDs, vendors' online updates and ready-made packages. However, in those inevitable cases when you need a piece of software and can't find a ready-to-install version of it, there are third-party installation programs that can deliver a wide range of up-to-date applications and which work across different Linux distributions. One is Ximian's Red Carpet, usually distributed as part of Ximian Desktop, which offers a Gnome-based interface that standardises the look-and-feel and behaviour of all applications. Red Carpet allows users to select from a list of installable programs, and puts all the other bits the program needs into place as well. This theoretically eliminates the difference between, say, a Red Hat server and a distribution someone has built in their garage out of spare parts. Another option is the Advanced Package Tool (APT), which originated with the Debian Linux project and has been ported to SuSE. Like Red Carpet, APT looks to an FTP source where a large number of packages are stored, and installs everything a package needs. One notable difference is that you can specify whatever source you like, including one you create yourself, adding another level of flexibility. APT is generally controlled through the command line, but graphical user interfaces such as Synaptic are also available. SuSE does not officially support APT, but some of the company's engineers help maintain APT repositories -- the project is 'smiled upon', according to a SuSE spokesperson. It took a bit of searching to find versions of APT and Synaptic for SLD, but setting it up was a matter of installing a couple of packages with YaST2. Synaptic offers a clean and intuitive interface, with a list of applications available for installation or upgrade. To install the latest version of Gaim was a matter of selecting it from a list; everything downloaded and installed in a few seconds, and there were no lingering dependency glitches, as there had been with Yahoo's client. The new version of Gaim had no noticeable glitches and worked in much the same way as Yahoo Messenger. This way of installing programs is actually far more convenient than the familiar Windows method of finding an installer file, downloading it and running it locally. It is, of course, only possible in the open-source world, where there are no legal barriers to prevent the creation of large, downloadable repositories of free software. Lindows.com offers users an APT-style installation tool called the Click-N-Run Warehouse. In a large organisation, the administrator will tend to install whatever software is needed by users, but the existence of tools such as YaST2 Online Update, APT and Red Carpet mean that users can do some of the work of updating themselves, if need be.
All the other applications we required were supplied on SLD's five installation CDs, including email client Evolution, the Mozilla browser, a Palm-compatible address book and CrossOver Office, which provides access to Outlook, Excel, Word and other Microsoft applications. As outlined in our original desktop Linux feature, setting up networked printers, handheld computers, CD burners and the like was problem-free. We decided to install the OpenOffice.org office 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. We had previously opted to use Microsoft Word running on CrossOver Office rather than StarOffice, which we found to be clunky and rather buggy. OpenOffice seemed much more stable, launched quickly, and presented an attractive interface. It still doesn't include a macro recorder, but the user experience was such an improvement over StarOffice and Word that we didn't mind the sacrifice. The only Microsoft software we needed in order to work with the Windows network was Outlook -- and even this could have been eliminated if we had elected to buy the Ximian Connector, which allows Ximian's Evolution to connect to Exchange.
Ease of use
With the machine set up, what was the experience of working with it over an extended period? Surprisingly unremarkable, actually -- which is in itself rather remarkable. Most of the time, it didn't seem to matter that we were using Linux and not Windows, since everything worked more or less in the expected way. However, over time a few annoying quirks did begin to show up. Individually, they made little impact on productivity, but taken together they made us question just how easy it would be to migrate to Linux desktops en masse. Most of these quirks were minor. For example, there were difficulties cutting and pasting text to and from Mozilla. This can be seriously frustrating for anyone whose job involves lots of cutting and pasting to and from the Web. The problem seemed to be solvable by reloading in Mozilla or restarting the browser, but this way madness lies. We also 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. KDE's Palm synchronisation tool worked well, but there was no evident way of editing Palm memo entries -- a significant omission. Of course, in the open-source world nearly anything can be accomplished with enough tinkering, but mainstream business users are unlikely to have the time, inclination or technical ability to tinker. The only major roadblock we came up against was transferring files to or from the office server over the LAN browser, which runs on a technology called Samba that communicates with Windows networks. 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. After much tinkering, it appeared that the solution would be to change the way the network's permissions were set up -- something many companies would find unacceptable. This was the only stumbling block that prevented us from getting work done, but it is a serious flaw. The quick-moving open source community may soon solve the problem, but that will not be good enough for companies wishing to install Linux desktops today. It's worth noting that Apple, with its Unix-based Mac OS X, has already implemented a working solution to this problem -- OS X had no trouble browsing the office network and reading and writing files. Samba acquitted itself better when we tried sharing files. In the file browser, you can right-click any folder and set it as a shared folder. We were able to share files between Linux and Windows desktops using this method. However, this also presented some mysteries: for example, the shared Linux machine was not visible on the network, and could only be found by performing a search.
In a real-world production environment, we found that SuSE Linux Desktop worked surprisingly well, and supplied all the software needed in a typical office. In fact, some of the software was better than its Windows equivalents, such as the XMMS media player, which imitates WinAmp but is somewhat easier to use. In general, we did not find using Linux in a Windows-centric environment to be a handicap, which is saying a lot. However, the problems we did come across (particularly the apparent limitations of Samba), and the amount of tinkering required to solve them, raised serious doubts about recommending Linux for widespread office use just yet.