Open Source

Four routes to Lin-Win desktops

Switching to Linux doesn't have to mean giving up Microsoft Office. Here are four products that take a different tack, letting you run Windows apps under Linux. Will one of them work for you?

By Todd Volz

In the decade since its introduction, Linux has sparked sporadic episodes of fervor over its utility as a corporate desktop OS. But in most cases, the bottom line was the same: It just wasn't practical.

Aside from glaring ease-of-use issues—most of which have been ameliorated by user interface improvements—the essential problem has always been a lack of solid business productivity applications, and by extension, cross-platform file compatibility. Most Linux distributions ship with an excess of desktop apps—from spreadsheets to word processors—but none can truly compete with Microsoft's ubiquitous Office suite.

Switch to Linux while keeping Microsoft Office
Initial efforts to make Linux more attractive concentrated on file compatibility with Microsoft Office, the standard corporate office suite. Linux-native office apps such as StarOffice, Abiword, and Gnumeric achieved varying degrees of success with importing/exporting files to Microsoft Office formats, but even the best import/export filters exhibit glitches in formatting. Since even minor glitches can quickly add up to reduced productivity and increased support costs, these Office substitutes have had little success convincing corporations to switch from Windows to Linux.

If native Linux apps don't cut the mustard, running the actual Windows apps they endeavor to imitate under Linux is the next logical step. That's the idea behind products such as VMware Workstation, Win4Lin, Wine, and most recently, CrossOver Office. These programs either emulate a Windows session within which you can run Windows programs or run specific Windows apps by translating Windows API calls to their Linux equivalents.

Emulation: Effective, but costly
Whether these solutions will suit your needs depends on your specific requirements and available resources. Emulation products such as VMware Workstation let you install a complete version of Windows under Linux and run a Windows session while running Linux at the same time. Emulation solves the applications issue, letting you run your Windows apps in their native environment.

In our tests, we found VMware easy to install and use and very stable. We were able to connect our Linux PCs to a Windows network, and Microsoft Office apps ran flawlessly. And unlike Win4Lin, which supports only Windows 95 and 98, VMware lets you run any version of the Windows OS. (Of course, you still need a licensed copy of Windows for each Windows session you run.)

But the flexibility VMware offers comes at a price. VMware is powerful, but it's also relatively expensive—not just in terms of price ($299 per system) but also hardware requirements. VMware's documentation says a 266-MHz CPU is the minimum requirement, but in our tests, using a 500-MHz PIII, the Windows virtual machine was noticeably sluggish. To get the most out of VMware, you really need powerful hardware; but since most companies are already running Windows—which requires much more horsepower to run than Linux—migrating to Linux to run Windows on top of it seems moot.

NeTraverse Win4Lin 3.0 takes an approach similar to that of VMware. But rather than using a real (or virtual) FAT file system for Windows—as VMware does—Win4Lin uses the Linux file system, which improves emulation performance considerably compared to VMware, especially on modest hardware. And although Win4Lin ($79) is considerably less expensive than VMware, its limited OS support and ability to run only one virtual session at a time pale in comparison to VMware's ability to run multiple sessions and OSs.

Native Office on Linux
The alternative to emulation is to run Office applications "natively" on Linux using a utility that can translate Windows API calls to the Linux OS. But this method can be complex to use, as exemplified by Wine, an open source project branded as a Windows "compatibility layer." Wine is less than user-friendly and typically requires much tweaking to get Windows apps to run properly.

However, CodeWeavers has deftly modified the Wine technology to create CrossOver Office. Using Wine's compatibility layer, CrossOver Office lets you run Microsoft Office apps—as well as Lotus Notes—under Linux. We found CrossOver Office surprisingly easy to install and configure, and the performance of Microsoft Office apps was comparable to performance under Windows. While there are still nits to pick with the product (font rendering, for example), CrossOver Office is easy to use, fast, and cheap ($59), and thus more likely than other Windows-on-Linux solutions to make corporate migration to Linux on the desktop a practical alternative.

This article was published by ZDNet Tech Update on April 17, 2002.

Linux on the enterprise desktop
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