Desktop Linux advocates to walk before they run

Proponents say strategy is to explain advantages of Linux over Windows, not to convert the masses

TYNGSBOROUGH, MASS. -- Not many corporations run Linux on their client hardware, but that situation will start to change if the Linux community can make a business case around the lower costs and greater manageability of enterprise Linux desktop environments, according to speakers at the Desktop Linux Conference here on Monday.

Linux advocates are trying to convince IT managers to abandon Microsoft Corp.'s licensing fees and security issues in favor of Linux software for the desktop. The strategy isn't to convert the masses all at once, but rather to explain the advantages of Linux over the Windows operating system for certain types of companies running certain types of applications.

One of those companies is Capital Cardiology Associates PC, an Albany, New York, provider of medical services. The company needed to upgrade its aging PC infrastructure and recently decided to roll out a thin-client Linux infrastructure to its 200 employees spread out across four offices, said Dr. Martin Echt, chief executive officer of the company.

Both the upgrade costs and the yearly maintenance costs of the Linux thin clients were less expensive than the costs of upgrading to new Windows PCs or Linux PCs, Echt said. The company was also able to take tighter control of individual desktops, deploying only the applications that its users required to stay productive, he said.

The company was forced to leave some specialized applications on a Windows server but managed to migrate just about all of its back-office users and doctors to Red Hat Inc.'s Linux distribution, Echt said.

"It was a leap of faith," Echt admitted. Support for Linux was hard to find in upstate New York, and there weren't many services vendors who had experience deploying the type of solution Capital Cardiology wanted, he said.

Current Linux distribution vendors such as Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux AG will have to evolve into larger services organizations if Linux is to gain a toehold on the enterprise desktop, said Bruce Perens, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative.

Perens called for Linux distributors to unite behind a single distribution based on the Debian version of Linux, which he helped to develop. Enterprises will be willing to pay Linux companies to engineer the operating system for their specific environments, but the underlying code would remain free, he said.

IBM Corp.'s Global Services team is getting behind Linux on the desktop, starting within IBM itself, according to Sam Docknevich, Linux and grid services executive for IBM. About 14,000 IBM employees use Linux desktops at the present time, and that number will grow to about 50,000 or 60,000 by next year, he estimated.

"Linux should be on the short list when (enterprises are) considering an upgrade," Docknevich said. For companies such as Capital Cardiology with users who need only a few custom applications, Linux desktops can deliver enough performance to satisfy their requirements at a fraction of the cost of Windows, he said.

Other areas where Linux desktops should make inroads are in kiosk systems, or other fixed-function systems where the operating system plays a very small role in the use of that device, Docknevich said.

The largest obstacle to more widespread desktop Linux adoption is the enormous installed base of Windows applications that many enterprises are dependent upon, Perens said. Companies that have started to move applications onto the Internet, or companies that use a small number of relatively simple applications, will be the early adopters of the Linux desktop, he said.

Software is available for those companies that can't afford to make a full transition to Linux, said Jeremy White, president and chief executive officer of Codeweavers Inc. Codeweavers makes a product called Crossover Office, which allows Linux users to run Windows programs such as Microsoft Office and IBM's Lotus Notes.

Crossover Office runs a limited number of applications but is less expensive than Win4Lin, White said. Win4Lin is software that allows Linux users to run any application developed for Windows, said Jim Curtin, president and chief executive officer of Netraverse, which develops Win4Lin.

"We want to provide an alternate method of deploying Windows applications. Use Codeweavers for smaller applications, Win4Lin for larger ones," Curtin said.

Linux provides a low-cost alternative to Windows for the majority of enterprise PC users that don't tap the full potential of their desktops, Perens said. By 2006, 30 percent of enterprise desktops will run Linux, he predicted.

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