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

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Xandros meshes well with Windows. Authenticating to a Windows domain is very simple, as is Windows network file browsing — sharing files on a Windows host, for instance. The default theme is very similar to that of Windows. During the initial boot following installation, the first boot wizard allows users to customize nearly every aspect of the desktop to their liking, from time zone to language, desktop themes, and mouse and keyboard preferences.

The Xandros Networks software management tool is easily modified to look at local software repositories rather than the default Xandros Internet repository, but a centralized management framework has not yet been released. System preferences are easy to modify with the Control Center, and the default application set is a little small but easily digested. Xandros also provides simple, fast-user switching.

As is the case with Red Hat and SuSE, Xandros lacks a coherent management product to apply and maintain desktop policies, but it’s working toward correcting that situation. Xandros is planning on releasing xDMS (Xandros Desktop Management Server) later this year. xDMS will provide enterprisewide desktop management, including automated bare-metal installations and package deployments. I had a chance to look at a beta build of xDMS, and the all-graphical installation and deployment interfaces look promising. What I did not see, however, was a policy management interface.

Xandros last week announced the availability of Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition 2.5. According to the company, it has upgraded several key applications in this version, although I didn’t have a chance to take a look before publication.

Crossing the divide

There’s more to replacing Windows than simply providing smooth management and ease-of-use. A major consideration of a Linux desktop migration is the migration itself. Moving from a Windows world to a Linux world over time requires solid network resource interoperability, at least during the migration.

All four distributions handled network browsing well — with Red Hat and Sun utilizing Gnome’s Nautilus shell for folder navigation, whereas SuSE prefers KDE’s Konquerer browser by default. Browsing Windows shares was not a problem. Konquerer supports FISH (Files Transferred Over Shell) — a file-access wrapper around SSH — for encrypted navigation of remote file shares. Xandros has spent plenty of time on the Windows integration aspects of Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition 2.0, and it shows. Whereas all distributions can authenticate to Windows networks, Xandros is nearly seamless.

So close

Overall, these offerings are a mixed bag. Sun is ahead with policy management, but the JDS 2 desktop needs a refresh. Red Hat’s hardware support and RHN services are solid; the desktop is polished and provides current software, but it lacks any form of desktop or application policy management. SuSE’s Desktop Linux suffers from the same age-related ailments that JDS 2 does, but it also lacks suitable management tools. Xandros’ approach is elegant, and the company’s upcoming management suite may give it an edge over more established rivals.

In the next six months, the Linux desktop battlefield will be quite different. It’s likely that some of these distributions will have moved to the v2.6 kernel within that time frame, which will assist with hardware problems and provide a smoother feel for the user. Desktop management tools will also have had time to grow some legs and to progress from a crawl to a walk. Many companies are already moving to Linux for single-purpose and fixed-use desktop systems in call centers, distribution facilities, point-of-sale terminals, and the like, leveraging the malleability of the desktop environment to provide focused tools. General-purpose Linux corporate desktops are certainly possible for the right environment, but it’s not for everyone yet.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Security (10.0%)
Performance (10.0%)
Management (30.0%)
Interoperability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition 2.0 8.0 8.0 3.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 6.5
SuSE Linux Desktop 1.0 7.0 8.0 4.0 6.0 7.0 8.0 6.2
Sun Java Desktop System, Release 2 7.0 8.0 6.0 6.0 7.0 8.0 6.8
Red Hat Enterprise Linux Workstation 3 8.0 8.0 5.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 7.1

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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