Apples bowl over uni's Linux desktops

Hope of Linux tackling the desktop market has suffered a reality check with the University of Melbourne's Trinity College dumping the penguin in favour of Unix cousin Mac OS X, not x86-based rival, Windows.

A lab of 20 PCs running Debian GNU/Linux will be replaced by G5 iMacs with the compelling reasons for the migration being a "slick user interface" and ease of use, according to Trinity College systems administrator Tim Bell.

"Looking at the maturity of Debian as a desktop and it's not quite there, particularly compared with Mac OS X, which has come a long way," Bell said. "It has a good user experience and is reliable [so] Mac OS X wins. Debian is still a good platform and is maintainable with minimal updates compared with Windows."

Bell said OS X supports all the required applications, including Microsoft Office.

"Under Linux we have been using OpenOffice which is great, but the interoperability is not quite there.

"The labs are not just used by students, so we need to provide labs for people without the time to learn Linux," he said. "Macs are simple to use and Linux still has a few rough edges."

Debian has been the Linux distribution of choice at the college since it started with Linux in 2000, and remains attractive to students. In 2003, a second Linux lab with another 20 PCs was opened and this one will remain. Bell is not sure why and puts it down to an education decision.

"Students doing computing go on to study commerce or economics [and] what's attractive to them is a wider experience in computing than just Windows," he said. "Linux is quite a buzzword in the financial industry, so we can attract more students. The college likes the fact that we are teaching Linux and it is popular with students."

An additional 33 eMacs are being purchased for the library and administration along with Xserve RAID storage systems for server backups. All up the deal is worth around $90,000.

The new computers will ship with the just-released Mac OS X version 10.4 "Tiger", making the college one of the first in the country to deploy it for business.

Ease of desktop management, in addition to looks, may have also influenced the decision.

"We have had to build on top of Debian to get management functionality and Apple has worked hard with remote administration and updates," Bell said.

"It's slicker than what we are used to and we can respond a bit better to user requirements. With Linux labs we might need to do a large update to install some software."

Bell said he had suggested replacing all the Linux desktops with Macs and using the Ubuntu live CD for a Linux environment which "worked pretty well during testing" but, that was rejected.

"Running Linux on the Macs remains a possibility, but seems strange since you already have Unix," he said. "It's silly to take away a good Unix with a good GUI and move to Linux which doesn't have as slick a GUI."

On the server side, the college also runs Debian, but may look at Apple Xserves in the future.

"Apple is back and embracing open source," Bell said. "For example, Mac OS X's mail server is Postfix and SquirrelMail which just happens to be what we are running on Debian."

Although Bell is replacing Linux with Macs, he believes the operating system has "a lot of merit and promise" on the desktop and will keep advancing particularly those distributions with a polished GUI.

"I don't think Macs and Linux are in direct competition as Linux gives the choice of Multiple hardware vendors," he said, adding that Macs have a role to play but are still niche. "It also depends on cost. If you can run your business without paying Microsoft, significant cost savings can be achieved."

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