Open Source

Is Linux ready for the desktop?

Linux has proven to be a great solution for a Web or printer server. But is the OS ready to make a run at replacing Windows on the desktop? It depends on how IT managers plan to deploy Linux, according to a group of experts.

As a desktop solution, Linux is the fastest growing OS on the block. Market shares have grown from 1.3 percent in 1999 to 1.5 percent in 2000, with predictions that it would reach 2 percent by the end of 2001, according to Gartner analyst and research vice president George Weiss.

Lean IT budgets are just one reason why IT pros are considering this option. A strong percentage of TechRepublic members cited price increases in Microsoft licensing as a reason to consider Linux. (See Figure A.)

But while the growth of Linux has been strong, those percentages are still extremely small, and many in IT still scoff at the notion that Linux may be ready for the desktop. A recent discussion among TechRepublic members illustrates the skepticism that is typical among IT pros.

Figure A
This TechRepublic poll was conducted in August 2001 in the Support Republic.

“If you go to a major computer store, what are you going to see?” asked Weiss rhetorically. “You’re going to see maybe four or five different vendor systems running Windows. So no matter which one you select, you’re going to get Windows. You probably won’t see a Mac OS, [and it's] very unlikely you’ll see a Linux.”

And yet, there are many scenarios when IT pros could save money and time by installing Linux at the desktop. In this article, several experts explain when Linux works well in the enterprise and what issues you should consider when weighing your OS options.

When Linux works
Arun Kumar, the practice director of Open Source Consulting and Enterprise System Management at Red Hat, is very matter-of-fact about when Linux does and doesn’t work as a desktop solution.

According to Kumar, Linux is typically being used on the PC in the following three scenarios:
  1. The PC power user: someone who runs and uses numerous applications, such as a graphic designer or manager.
  2. Organizations that run only one or two applications on many desktops, perhaps thousands of desktops: for example, a work environment such as a call center.
  3. Work stations, where PCs are part of a wide network and used for development work: for example, PCs used by engineers or researchers.

Kumar doesn’t recommend Linux for the first scenario, the PC power user.

“If you look at the first case, obviously, Linux is not very strong there because of the applications,” he said. “Microsoft rules 98 percent of the desktop. I don’t think we’re too interested in trying to wrest market shares from Microsoft in that space.”

But in the second and third scenarios, many are already moving to Linux, according to Kumar, especially in situations where their applications are browser-based.

“When people only have one application running on the desktop, what sense does it make to them to pay a lot of money to Microsoft when all they're doing is using one application that’s not even Microsoft-based?”

What’s holding back Linux?
Certainly, Linux has a lot going for it. Its promise of a low-cost solution holds appeal for businesses working to reduce operating expenses during these lean economic times. Some organizations want an alternative because of ever-escalating licensing fees. One consultant, Rob Valliere, saved a client $10,000 by using Linux on the server and desktops and upgrading only four PCs to Windows 2000 and Office 2000. (Valliere detailed his findings in a Web-published study.)

So why aren’t companies switching to Linux in droves? Two reasons are typically cited—its complexity and the applications.

“As much hype has been given to Linux and as much hope has been pinned on it as a possibility of implementations on the desktops and savings on licenses, …I would hesitate to say it is as consumer friendly,” said John Gowin, an IT consultant who writes for and Element K Journals and is vice president and partner of Third Level Strategies, a consultancy based in Louisville, KY. “Using Linux generally requires a better understanding of how the PC works.”

Weiss agreed that if users are accustomed to drilling down into Windows files, they might stumble with Linux. But he contends that if users are only launching applications from the Start menu, they should find Linux’s most popular GUIs, KDE and GNOME, easy to use.

”People who are used to Windows would be very comfortable using Linux with those windowing managers,” he said. “It looks very much like Windows.”

But Windows devotees may be disappointed by Linux’s more limited software offerings, he said, especially if they’re attached to particular applications. If your company uses off-the-shelf applications, he suggested you visit or other Linux-related Web sites to see if those solutions are offered for Linux OS.

The good news: If you’re not particular about the software brand, you’ll find that many Linux applications are open source, which will save you in licensing fees.

Is Linux right for your desktop?
If you think Linux might work for your company, the best way to decide is to try it for yourself, said Weiss. For an investment of about $79, you can set up Red Hat on an older machine and test it out as a desktop solution.

“I would suggest [that you] don’t just listen to analysts—go try it,” he said. “Then based upon the company’s own experience with it, they can decide what they want to do. I think they will find it works quite well for certain things and [for] other things it seems somewhat raw.

“Only they know what applications are appropriate for their business.”

Are you convinced?
Do you think you could find a use for Linux on your desktops? Tell us why or why not by posting below or by sending us a letter.


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