Linux’s growing popularity on servers and newer desktops, the recent release of Linux-native office suites, and the potential to run Microsoft Office on Linux have prompted many organizations to investigate moving some, or all, of their desktops to this Windows alternative. If you’re in this group, you’ll need to consider you desktop’s current hardware configuration before making the switch. This article will explain what you should look for when determining whether the hardware on which you currently run Windows is capable of running Linux.

Choose a good distribution

Before looking at your hardware, make sure that you are considering a distribution that has good hardware support. For example, if you are thinking about replacing Windows PCs with Linux, don’t consider a Yellow Dog distribution, as it is a PowerPC-based product. If you stick with the bigger names such as Red Hat, Mandrake, or Debian, your hardware woes will be much lessened.

Look at the hardware
Many PC desktops shipped today will work with recent Linux distributions, but there are some vital things to check before migrating your Windows machines to Linux. Windows currently has a much more diverse set of drivers than Linux, meaning Microsoft’s OS will work with a wider variety of hardware. Although vendor support for Linux is growing, some devices won’t work with Linux. Here’s a look at how to tell which ones will.

Video cards and monitors
When choosing a Linux desktop interface, it’s likely that you’ll wind up with either the Gnome or KDE interface, both of which are based on the XFree86 project. To determine whether your desktops’ video adapter chipset is supported, visit XFree86’s Driver Status page. You can also check and your video card manufacturer’s Web site. If, after looking, you don’t find a video driver that will work, your only options are to wait until a driver for you particular card is written or replace the card with a supported one.

Monitors are a different story. Almost any monitor will work with Linux, and the Linux installer should detect the monitor during setup. If it doesn’t, you will have an opportunity to specify its settings later on. At a minimum, you can set the monitor’s vertical and horizontal sync ranges.

Modems and network adapters
Modems and network adapters can be particularly frustrating. If your organization uses Winmodems, which are specifically designed to work with Windows, getting them working properly under Linux is difficult, if not impossible. You should seriously consider replacing such modems if your users need a working modem after your Linux migration.

Network adapters can also be a source of aggravation. Although most common network adapters work, their full range of functionality may not be supported. For example, features such as IPSec may not work. Also, before you make the switch, you should look at the vendor’s Web site to see whether it has the proper drivers available. It has been my experience that most network adapters are automatically detected during system installation with the newer versions of Linux. I have recently installed a number of Linux machines with network adapters ranging from a Realtek-based unit to 3Com to Intel, and all work perfectly.

Many newer motherboards will work with Linux, but this is only a consideration if you are building your own systems. If your organization purchases machines through a major vendor (Dell, Gateway, Compaq, and the like), you shouldn’t experience any problems. As with the video cards and network adapters, however, it’s best to play it safe and make sure that the motherboard either shipped with Linux drivers or that they’re available for download.

At the same time, find the manufacturer of the IDE controller on the motherboard and attempt to find Linux drivers, if possible. If you try to install Linux on your machine and it is unable to find the drivers for the controller, consider an add-in IDE controller from this list from Steven Pritchard’s Linux Hardware Compatibility HOWTO. Fortunately, most modern systems shouldn’t have any problems.

CD drives
Both CD-ROM drives and CD burners, with the exception of USB models, are well supported under Linux. Check out this Web site for a comprehensive list of supported burners. If you have an internal CD-ROM drive or CD burner, you can be almost certain that it will work once you transition to Linux. If you have a USB burner, it will most likely not work at all.

Other hardware
Keyboards, mice, and other common devices such as floppy drives will work with little or no problem under Linux. You may have to do a little tweaking to get the mouse settings perfect, but with newer machines, these devices should not present a problem.

A few years ago, getting a Linux system up and running with full hardware support was a real chore. Today, that process is much easier thanks to better vendor and open-source support. As Linux makes bigger inroads on the desktop, hardware support will improve even more. If you are considering moving your Windows workstations to Linux, I hope that these tips will help you to determine how well your hardware will work.

Have you migrated to Linux?

If your organization is already running Linux on some or all of its desktops, we’d like to hear about it. What were the most significant problems during the migration process: end-user training, software compatibility, or upper-management resistance? How much did your organization save by going with Linux instead of Windows? Join our Linux migration debate and share your opinion.