It’s one of the perennial questions facing the open source movement: Is Linux ready for the corporate desktop? Ready or not, Linux is coming.
Industry research company IDC predicts that enough companies will see the benefits of a Linux desktop to increase paid shipments of the operating system from 3.4 million clients worldwide in 2002 to more than 10 million by 2007, giving Linux a small but respectable 6 percent of the desktop market.
“Linux captured the No. 2 spot as desktop operating system in 2003,” says IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. “IDC sees Linux maintaining that No. 2 position and growing ever so slightly — but not becoming a dominant force or even a major force.”
Regardless of whether Linux will be a real threat to Windows on the desktop, the expected growth was enough to prompt Linux vendor Red Hat to introduce an enterprise-focused Red Hat Desktop product in May. Despite being the leading commercial Linux vendor, Red Hat actually lags behind Sun Microsystems’ Linux desktop sales to enterprises. Last fall, Sun began shipping its Java Desktop System, which is based on the SuSE Linux distribution. And SuSE itself has shipped a product for corporate users since March 2003, called the SuSE Linux Desktop. Since being acquired by Novell earlier this year, SuSE has been readying the Novell Linux Desktop, which will incorporate software from Novell’s 2003 acquisition of Ximian.
“We’re listening to customers, and we’re listening to the market,” says Novell CTO Alan Nugent. “And the market keeps saying, ‘Why do I have to spend all of this money on licenses for XYZ software when these 40,000 desktop machines are sitting here just running a mail client, a Web browser, and a couple of Citrix-served apps?’ ”
Good question. Unfortunately, it’s still extremely difficult — if not impossible — to get solid data on Linux’s TCO on the corporate desktop. And although the Linux desktop has strong appeal for some customers, it isn’t for everyone.
In January of this year, Eddie Bleasdale, a systems integrator based in Surrey, England, formed the Incubator Club, an informal group of IT managers who meet regularly to discuss their experiences with Linux and open source migrations. According to Bleasdale, current members of the club are engaged in pilot projects and even some large-scale Linux migrations, which could collectively total as many as 200,000 desktops.
According to Bleasdale, if IT managers take a long-term approach, the move to Linux desktops has enough benefits to make the switch worthwhile — from lower software licensing costs, to a slower hardware upgrade cycle, to increased efficiency owing to more secure, scalable, and reliable systems. “Your objective should be that, over a period of years, you should be able to reduce your costs of computing by 50 percent,” he says.
One major outstanding issue for any company looking to migrate to the Linux desktop, however, is application support. With command of more than 90 percent of the desktop market, the Windows operating system is deeply entrenched. When one considers the legacy applications and Microsoft dependencies common to most enterprises, a move to Linux can quickly become a complicated proposition.