Linux nearly ripe for the enterprise desktop

Looking at four commercial Linux desktop OSes, the Test Center finds lack of enterprise-level manageability a common shortcoming

One of the more divisive concepts in IT these days is Linux on the desktop. There are those who would prefer nothing else, pointing to myriad security and stability problems found in Microsoft operating systems, and there are those who would prefer it not at all, talking about wide disparities among Linux distributions, insufficient management tools, the lack of certain software, and esoteric hardware compatibility issues.

When investigating the realities of corporate Linux desktops, choosing a distribution can be challenging. According to, there are 309 active Linux distributions available. Most of these are highly specialized, fringe distributions with limited audiences, but there is still contention for the top 10.

Recent forays into commercial distributions by major vendors have underlined the need for focus, support, and management. I looked at four commercial distributions: SuSE Linux Desktop 1.0, Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS (Workstation) 3, Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition 2.0, and Sun Microsystems JDS (Java Desktop System), Release 2.

Based on my testing, my overall impression is that for general-purpose desktop systems, Linux still isn’t quite there, but it is moving along quickly. Desktop Linux has made great strides in ease-of-use and the quality of available software, and many desktop applications for Linux compare favorably with their Windows counterparts, such as and the Evolution e-mail client.

But barriers to enterprise adoption remain. Management continues to be Linux’s greatest weakness (see “Manageability Will Prove Key to Success,” page 27). At this time, only Sun’s JDS offers any form of policy management for controlling various aspects of desktop presentation, application default settings, and so forth. The other solutions stop at automated package management capable of widely deploying new software, if they get there at all. For now, administrators are applying mass changes to deployed desktops via home-brew methods.

Notably, none of these distributions runs the v2.6 kernel . A significant amount of the kernel’s code has been included specifically for desktop and workstation implementations. Red Hat’s highly modified 2.4.21EL kernel is the closest in performance and compatibility to the v2.6 kernel, but when commercial desktop distributions are brought to market with a true v2.6 kernel, performance and hardware support will be greatly enhanced (see “Hardware Headaches,” page 31).

SuSE Linux Desktop 1.0

SuSE’s current workstation is showing its age. It ships with the elderly v2.4.19 kernel, which dates back to August 2002, although SuSE has tweaked it significantly. In keeping with the age of the kernel, many of the included packages are a bit behind the curve. SuSE does offer online updates via YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool) Online Updates.

The OS will, however, be heading for a whole new look by the end of the year. With Novell’s acquisition of the formidable Ximian Desktop, the next version of SuSE’s desktop product should be a significant change, depending on the choices Novell makes. The Ximian Desktop is fluid and attractively Gnome-based, and SuSE has been a predominately KDE (K Desktop Environment)-based distribution. How Novell will reconcile this divide is still up in the air but bears watching.

SuSE’s all-graphical installation is driven by SuSE’s stalwart YaST, which maps out a clean if sometimes obtuse installation process, permitting the alteration of nearly every aspect of the OS installation and providing all hardware detection and configuration.

Installation on the various lab systems was straightforward, albeit lengthy due to a few hardware issues. During a manual installation, the administrator must choose one of three installation types: a standard workstation installation, an enterprise-workstation template installation, or a thin-client installation, which is intended for a minimal installation on slower hardware to be used as a terminal services client. The template installation is used to create a configuration for AutoYaST, which will permit automated remote desktop installations.

An annoying facet of the network boot and installation is that hardware detection does not always correctly discover the network interface, requiring a module definition during installation or that one be provided via a boot-time flag.

SuSE Linux Desktop contains the usual software suspects: KDE 3.1.1, 1.0.3 and CodeWeaver’s CrossOver Office. CrossOver Office permits Microsoft Office to be installed on a Linux system via the WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) project. With a valid license, it’s simple to install and run Microsoft Office on the desktop. Also present are Mozilla 1.2.1 and a bevy of smaller applets, such as the rdesktop RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) client. As does Xandros, SuSE prefers KDE over Gnome by default.

The default KDE theme is polished and will be familiar to Windows converts. The integration of KDE includes the Konquerer Web and file browser and the kmail POP/IMAP client. Although it is provided, Ximian’s Evolution is not installed by default. In terms of included software, SuSE’s newest offerings — SuSE Linux 9.1 Personal and Professional — are definitely more advanced and bode well for the next SuSE Linux Business Desktop offering that’s waiting in the wings.

In terms of management, SuSE gets points for YaST. Nearly every aspect of the OS can be configured via YaST, from software installation through hardware configuration. SuSE is betting on YaST for the future, relying on the framework provided to enhance the management of large deployments. With new boss Novell at the helm, we can expect a merger of sorts among Red Carpet, YaST, and the Novell stalwart ZENWorks. The new solution will likely be named ZENWorks and will aim much higher than the current SuSE management toolset. For now, however, SuSE’s management offerings are limited to local configuration and remote installation services.

Sun JDS, Release 2

P.J. Connolly looked at Sun JDS 2003earlier this year and found the user presentation elegant and usable but decried the solution’s complete lack of management tools. JDS 2 doesn’t stray from the posh brushed-steel and muted tones of the desktop design, but it does pack some significant — although very new — management tools on the back end. Some of these tools trace their lineage through the Cobalt server line, with Sun’s SCS (Sun Control Station) 2.1 providing the lower-level system management tools.

The features list is significant: the AllStart service provides simple automated system imaging via PXE (Preboot Execution Environment); agents installed by default on JDS systems provide system health and software installation data; and the SCS server can distribute software to systems on the network and provide the management front end.

Here, as always, Sun finds itself between two worlds. The SCS server requires a dedicated Red Hat 7.3 or Advanced Server 2.1 system, whereas JDS 2 itself is based on SuSE Linux. The SCS server isn’t bound to JDS, however, as it will handle many other client operating systems, including various Red Hat, SuSE, and Solaris releases. Sun is also branching out from Linux, planning on JDS releases for Solaris x86 and Solaris Sparc in the fourth quarter of this year. This may be a watershed moment for Sun. Sun’s CDE (Common Desktop Environment) is no more, and every Sun OS release will share a look and feel and will be managed by the same administrative back end.

For now, however, JDS 2 is available for x86 systems. The JDS installation process is nearly identical to SuSE’s. The all-graphical installation is driven by YaST with Sun branding, providing a relatively straightforward installation interface. As with the other distributions, network installations are possible, with install packages served via NFS, HTTP, or FTP.

Sun definitely puts it’s own spin on the desktop. The default desktop is Gnome 2.2, and the default installation contains more software, making JDS 2 the biggest default installation of the bunch. One of the packages installed by default is the agent that is used to deliver data to the SCS server for health monitoring and package installations.

Sun leads the pack with its first foray into Linux desktop policy management. Its JDS Configuration Manager is built into Sun’s WebConsole management framework and provides simple policy management for deployed desktops. Linux lacks a major facility utilized in nearly every Windows network: group policies. With Active Directory Group Policies, Microsoft introduced a Byzantine but thorough management tool for dictating nearly every aspect of the desktop user experience and provided a central point from which to control and enforce policy construction.

Such is Sun’s goal with the JDS Configuration Manager. The actual policy elements available are not extensive, but they exist, and they work. In fact, policy application works very well, with new policies applying to running systems generally within 30 seconds. For instance, the implementation of a policy-enforced desktop background image on a single-user basis took effect 20 seconds after the policy was configured. After all, this is Linux. Reboots are not accepted.

Configuration Manager requires integration with an LDAP directory server. In the lab, I used OpenLDAP and was able to apply policies on a group, user, and host basis. Configuration Manager definitely has the new-car smell; although it does support third-party policy packages for managing proprietary or otherwise unsupported applications, the default policies are limited to Evolution 1.4, Gnome 2.2, Mozilla 1.4, and StarOffice 7.

Sun scores points for the management features present in SCS but needs to refresh the desktop distribution, specifically in hardware support and updated versions of many included applications. As for Sun’s Configuration Manager, it’s definitely Version 1.0, but the functionality provided is significant for lack of competition.

Red Hat EnterpriseLinux WS 3

With a more recent release than either SuSE or Sun JDS, Red Hat WS 3 has the advantage of being the new kid on the block. Consequently, it provides broader hardware support and fresher components. But the tide could turn when other vendors release commercial distributions based on the v2.6 kernel. To its credit, Red Hat has back-ported several key v2.6 features such as NPTL (Native POSIX Threading Library) into its 2.4.21EL kernel used on both its server and workstation products.

Right out of the box, Red Hat’s Anaconda installer demonstrated compatibility and speed, providing the quickest manual installation time by far and handling hardware detection better than either JDS 2 or SuSE Linux Desktop. Red Hat’s Bluecurve theme on the default Gnome 2.4 desktop is attractive but can make the interface look a bit like a toy, with its overly large icons and bottom panel, even at higher resolutions. The interface shares the feel of Windows’ menu and desktop design. The included 1.1 is a significant step up from SuSE’s 1.0.3 and nearly matches Sun’s StarOffice 7 for usability and functionality. Because is directly derived from StarOffice, this is no surprise. Notably, Red Hat is the only distribution that does not include Java in the default installation.

Red Hat’s management suite concentrates heavily on automated software deployments. The RHN (Red Hat Network) provides a hosted management interface that allows administrators to view the current status of the systems under their purview, schedule package installations, and more. Some may like the off-site management, but many others will want to bring this control within their firewalls. Red Hat can accommodate these administrators with Red Hat Network Satellite and Proxy servers.

The RHN Proxy is designed to be a local RHN control center, maintaining synchronization with the off-site RHN site and bringing all package updates to local resources. The RHN Satellite enhances these features with the capability to run completely disconnected from a larger network.

Red Hat has software and system management chops but lacks a coherent policy management tool. Using homegrown packages pushed through RHN, it’s possible to make alterations to every deployed system. But there’s no validation of policy adherence, and that scenario has a distinct roll-your-own flavor to it.

Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition 2.0

Xandros has the lowest profile of the bunch, and it takes a very different approach to the concept of a Linux-based business desktop. The installation is completely graphical, lacking even a short, text-based menu step. The installation is clean and very short of prompts. There are ways to dig into the install and change parameters, but following the default path requires very little interaction. In keeping with the all-graphical concept, Xandros’ boot sequence is completely graphical as well, with no visible kernel output whatsoever.

Xandros is based on Debian Linux, an open source Linux distribution known to attract hard-core Linux users. This is likely both the strength and weakness of Xandros. The base layer is very solid, but the compatibility is questionable. By default, Debian does not use RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) but instead uses Debian software packages. The Xandros package manager does support RPM, but mixing the two can lead to dependency problems.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
How to choose a low-code development platform