How to decide whether desktop Linux makes sense

Eight questions to help you determine if now is the time to find a place for desktop Linux in your organization

No one in their right mind believes that desktop Linux will replace Windows on business desktops overnight. Not with a current overall market share of 1 percent (according to the latest Wikipedia stats).

But might desktop Linux take hold gradually? In "Desktop Linux: Why it may have lost its chance," Neil McAllister dismisses that possibility. "This kind of hybrid environment requires IT to manage two OSes at the same time -- including user support, software updates, security, backups, and interoperability between the systems. And that drives up support costs." His other main objection is more obvious: Those who use desktop Linux are shut out of Windows applications.

[ Neil McAllister once wrote a blog devoted to open source, but despite his best efforts, he can't find a good reason for enterprises to adopt desktop Linux. On the other hand, InfoWorld executive editor Galen Gruman was pleasantly surprised by Unbuntu 8.1. ]

But McAllister concludes on a more sanguine note: Adoption could accelerate as applications and data migrate to the cloud and away from the whole notion of a desktop PC. Running Firefox on Linux and Firefox on Windows is the same user experience.

So why not get a little jumpstart on that future scenario? Most businesses already maintain a "hybrid" environment, thanks to the Mac (not to mention Vista). Whether you run screaming from a new support burden or decide to experiment with desktop Linux in a serious way depends on several factors:

  1. Is the expertise to deploy and manage desktop Linux already there? Fat chance you already have anyone dedicated to Linux desktop support. But chances are equally slim that a large IT department lacks someone who is a Microsoft-hating, desktop Linux zealot. If he or she is capable of handling responsibility, that person could be key in making incremental adoption possible.
  2. Have you already upgraded your users to Microsoft Office 2007? If not, you may incur lower training/support costs switching to or Lotus Symphony than to Office 2007, because their UIs are closer to 2003. In InfoWorld's latest tests, these free productivity suites proved themselves capable alternatives to Microsoft Office, provided you don't need high-end Office features.
  3. Do you have standardized desktop hardware? Every enterprise should, but waves of legacy systems and hand-me-downs may have created a mix that would make a desktop Linux "upgrade" a nightmare. No Linux distro can ever approach the breadth and depth of hardware support built into Windows, and the last thing you want to do is fish around for Linux drivers for a diversity of hardware.
  4. Can you buy desktop Linux preinstalled? If you don't think you'll ever upgrade the hardware of a new system with desktop Linux preinstalled, then the hardware compatibility problem goes away. Dell sells desktops with Ubuntu preinstalled, and you can still get desktop Linux on most netbooks.
  5. Do you have discrete workgroups (or larger classes of users) that present an opportunity? Toying with a few Linux desktops might be fun, but you won't enjoy much licensing cost savings. Find the right situation. For example, an entire workgroup needs a hardware upgrade, or establish a rule that when one class of employee with modest needs requires a new machine, Linux will be on it.
  6. Do you rely heavily on corporate desktop management tools? Quite a few enterprises do, and all of these tools tend to be Windows-centric. Here's where managing hybrid environments could be a real pain.
  7. Are there Windows apps besides Office that no one in your company can do without? Then unless you are lucky enough to find a desktop Linux equivalent, you're out of luck. An increasing number of companies rely on, for example, the SharePoint collaborative environment, from which any desktop Linux user will be shut out.
  8. Do key Web apps use ActiveX? Yes, Mozilla has an AcitveX plug-in for Firefox, but anecdotally, compatibility is spotty. If your developers went wild with ActiveX and everybody uses those Web apps, then you probably aren't a great candidate.

You get the picture: If you're a Microsoft shop, you're a Microsoft shop (hey, I'm not sure, but I think they planned it that way). But if you aren't so terribly locked in, why not give it a whirl?


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