Sun Microsystems' newest entry into the desktop arena is the new Sun Java Desktop (SJD). This offering from Sun is an integrated operating system and productivity package positioned to go head-to-head against Microsoft's Windows and Office. SJD is tailored for SOHO offices, midsize businesses, or any IT department running on a tight budget with the need for basic Office functionality and a cheap operating system.
What is Sun Java Desktop?
Sun has partnered with SUSE Linux for the operating system and used Gnome for the GUI interface. SUSE Linux provides an excellent and mature Linux back end that is very reliable and has minimum hardware requirements. The Gnome front end provides a stable Windows-like GUI interface that is tuned for inexperienced Linux users. On the office productivity side, Sun has included StarOffice 7.x, the commercial version of the open source OpenOffice suite of applications. Ximian Evolution is the e-mail and calendaring solution that provides an Outlook-like client with many of the same features that any Office user would expect.
Sun has also included GIMP, various games, a PDF reader, movie-playing software, and other goodies. Anyone who has experience with either KDE or Gnome will see many standard items missing from this distribution. Nonetheless, SJD is geared more towards an office environment and not the typical Linux user.
The installation of SJD is very straightforward, and an average IT Support professional can handle it with ease. I installed SJD on my Pentium 4 2.8-GHz desktop system, as well as on a Pentium III 700-MHz laptop. (The laptop was just above the suggested hardware requirements, and I'll discuss some special factors in laptop installation as we go along.) Sun's recommended requirements for SJD are a Pentium III 600-MHz machine with 256 MB of RAM. The bare minimum hardware is specified as a Pentium II 266 with 128 MB of RAM.
From the requirements, you can already see the difference between Sun's new offering and Windows. Even though Microsoft may say that Windows 2000 will run on a 133-MHz Pentium with 64 MB of RAM, my experience is that it will start and not much more. When MS Office 2000 is installed, the requirements jump to a 300-MHz PC with 256 MB of RAM. However, most organizations have found that Windows will require significantly more hardware resources than the minimum specified. This is one area where SJD really shines: You can have full functionality and reasonable speed for the applications on a system that cannot run the current Windows 2000 or XP desktop efficiently.
Installing Sun Java desktop
The installation starts when you insert the first disk and boot the computer. In Figure A, we see the opening screen of the installer. The GUI will help even those who fear the command line to successfully install SJD.
|Starting the Sun Java Desktop installation|
The typical installation will take three CDs and about an hour of your time. The faster the CPU and CD drive, the sooner you'll be done. On both of my test systems, the installation routine did not find the LCD monitor and defaulted to a VESA monitor with 800 x 600 resolution. On the desktop system, which was running Virtual PC, this was expected. However, on the laptop the LCD should have been picked up. To be fair, it took just 30 seconds to change the configuration to reflect the correct monitor and the installation was back on track. The video drivers, sound card drivers, USB, and other ports were correctly identified and configured without any intervention.
With a single reboot after the third CD, I had the Gnome desktop up and running, as you can see in Figure B.
|The default desktop for SJD|
StarOffice supplies a word processor that will read and write Microsoft Office formatted files, a presentation application like Microsoft PowerPoint, and a spreadsheet application similar to Excel. Each StarOffice application will read and save Microsoft Office files with a very high success rate. In Figure C, you can see the word processor in StarOffice open with a sample document in multiple columns.
|The StarOffice 7.0 word processor|
The StarOffice word processor can also import documents that use style sheets. I did run into some problems when I embedded spreadsheets into a presentation and then exported it all to the Microsoft PowerPoint format. The data was there, but not as an embedded object.
Special needs for laptop users
Laptop users typically have special problems with Linux-based products. For this review, I used a Compaq M700 as the test laptop. I felt that this configuration, while not exactly new, should give me a good indication of how well or how poorly SJD will support the mobile office.
The laptop has a built-in Intel NIC that nearly every OS I've installed has found. I'm happy to report SJD was not any different. However, I threw a curve at the OS after the default installation completed by adding a wireless PCMCIA card to the mix. The first card I tried was the ubiquitous Cisco PCM-340. Unfortunately, the PCM-340 did not initialize correctly, as evidenced by both the status and activity lights remaining lit after installation. However, an earlier version of the PCM-340, the Aironet 4800, came right up.
Nonetheless, configuring the wireless card is not nearly as easy as it should be. The CLI command iwconfig is your friend when it comes to wireless connections with SJD. Or you can use the not-so-intuitive menu item located at Preferences | System | Hardware | Network Card. I felt it was a convoluted path to something that should not have been that hard to find. In the end, the Aironet 4800 came online and I was surfing away on a wireless connection.
Web Surfing and Evolution e-mail
For Internet cruising, Mozilla 1.4 is provided as the browser of choice. I have been using Mozilla for several months on a couple of Windows and Red Hat computers and found it to be robust and easy to use. Also, there's an Instant Messaging client called Gaim that supports AIM, Yahoo!, and MSN.
The e-mail portion is handled by Ximian Evolution 1.4.5, which does a nice imitation of Outlook. In Figure D, you can see the basic framework of Evolution with the folders pinned to the left side and the e-mail in the preview mode.
|Evolution has all the functionality that you need from a robust e-mail solution with a summary page, an appointment page, and a task page.|
Configuring the network
SJD found the network cards in both test systems and configured DHCP without any issues. The default install allows SJD to use a Microsoft network without having to install any other software or configuration. You can see in Figure E that I was able to attach to a Windows 2000 Advanced Server's shares.
|Attaching to Windows Servers|
The security on Sun's Java Desktop is also decent out of the box. An NMAP scan against the test box shows that only port 22 for ssh, port 111 for sunrpc, port 515 for printer, port 631 for ipp, and port 6000 for X-Windows is open. (Port 6000 is open because I enabled X-Windows as part of my testing.) Not bad for a new product running the default settings.
Updating SJD using the Online Updater
I was amazed by how badly Sun implemented its version of software patching. One of the dialog boxes asks you for a code and password, but there is nothing in the documentation indicating where to find this code and password. I was only able to find the explanation on Sun's Web site with about 10 minutes of digging around: The serial number is the code and the password required for initiating updates. Adding insult to injury, the serial number is shown in plain text when you click on the Keep Registration Data link of the dialog box. Obviously, keeping any password in plain view is never a good idea.
Summing it up
Sun is running a special on SJD until June 2004 for $50 US per copy. You can read the details and get the current pricing at Sun's SJD Web site. Even the normal retail price is cheap at $100 US. Compare that to the $300 US or more for Windows XP, plus another $400 US for Office Premium, and you start to see some real savings—assuming that your users can work with StarOffice, Ximian, and other odd-sounding program names.