Linux ready for the desktop

Rodney Gedda looks at the changing tide of the enterprise desktop

Since its inception in the early nineties, Linux has achieved a significant share of the server operating system market. The desktop, however, has largely been the domain of Windows since the advent of Windows 95 more than a decade ago.

National equipment rental company Kennards Hire started a rollout in January of a project in which more than 400 desktops were migrated to Linux. Completed in March, Kennards now has Fedora Linux on desktop across about 80 branches nationally.

Linux has been used in production for more than six months.

While the company is still preparing to make a public statement on the outcome of the migration project, a Kennards spokesperson said so far it has been successful and a "great experience".

"We have had a small number of issues with video resolution and binary-only device drivers," the spokesperson said. "There have been speed and productivity improvements, and an increase in stability."

Kennards' project, codenamed Merlin, also involved the conversion of the company's point-of-sale (POS) systems to Linux. This will let Kennards use standard PCs for POS instead of proprietary dedicated devices.

Whether Kennards deploys Linux desktops at its corporate headquarters is yet to be determined.

Kennards' story may be a rarity in the overall desktop market, but it does demonstrate how businesses have the option to perform large-scale migrations to Linux provided their applications permit it because, like Windows, it will run on commodity PCs and thin-clients.

David Elson, managing director of Sydney-based Linux and open source consultancy Babel Com, said the smoothest transition to a Linux desktop is likely to be with the standard applications of e-mail, Web browsing, and word processing, which represent 90 percent of what an average user does during the course of a day.

Those applications likely to be less successful are the "poor" selection of base accounting packages, and payroll.

"Looking at a large desktop fleet, the most compelling reason is lower cost," Elson said. "Linux is cheaper to deploy than Windows, but also the running costs over time are much lower. Deploying updates and new applications to a set of Linux desktops is somewhat cheaper than doing the same for Windows, which over a large fleet of desktops adds up fairly quickly."

Because all functions of a Linux desktop system can be accessed remotely, Elson said it is much easier for centralized desktop support staff to systematically manage a large range of Linux desktop PCs without having to leave their support desks and travel to the PC itself.

Since there are many Linux distributions, Elson recommends standardizing on one stable version and plan updates "in sync" across the entire fleet. "In any IT environment it's possible to save money by using Linux, but it's also possible to shoot yourself in the foot if you don't plan it adequately," he said.

On the topic of training end users to work with Linux, Elson believes it is not generally necessary when moving to different types of common applications like office suites and e-mail; however, it will be worthwhile spending a portion of any savings on training.

"You will end up with a better and more skilled workforce, with higher productivity and job satisfaction," he said.

Having committed itself to desktop Linux in a big way with the recent release of its SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) 10 product, Novell is now confident the operating system is ready for mainstream business use.

Novell's Australia and New Zealand general manager Matthew Christie said initial desktop Linux offerings were targeting fixed-function workstations, but now it is more integrated and has more applications so is ready for the average worker.

"We've invested a lot of time and effort to make sure usability is there so training is not significant," Christie said. "We can modify it quickly which is fantastic from a research and development perspective."

Christie recommends IT managers look at how much they can get out of their desktop investment.

"Constraints will come with very specialized functions, but we're not targeting that market as Microsoft and Apple service it well," he said. "When you look at ROI you can reduce the amount of security and antivirus software."

With enterprises budgeting for three- to five-year hardware investments, Christie said "you can guarantee five years" with Linux.

"It's an important story to consider with what you are doing in the whole IT environment; that is important for customers right now," he said. "We offer them a choice and I see next year as the beginning of the transition."

Red Hat's general manager for Australia and New Zealand, Max McLaren said the desktop is a "huge topic", but customers are looking for more than a low-cost Windows clone in Linux.

"Customers are looking to maintain a secure environment and administer a large deployment of desktops more effectively," McLaren said, adding it is unfortunate that a lot customers look at the standard cost of a desktop.

McLaren said the cost of security alone in the standard desktop, is at least "50 percent to double" that of Linux.

He believes the primary inhibitors to large-scale Linux desktop adoption are Windows applications, especially Excel macros, and a perception of a large training cost associated with the move.

"There will always be a migration cost for any large project, but this will be dramatically lowered over time," he said. "You need take a long-term view and realize security and admin costs will be lowered. We're not saying everything should be moved over at once."

McLaren cited car rental company Europcar as having "success" by moving call centre people and branch office systems to Red Hat's desktop.

Red Hat will release version 5 of its desktop operating system later this year and is promising to more aggressively market the product than it has in the past.

Desktop Linux users

The following is a list of local companies using Linux on the desktop to some degree:

  • Telstra
  • Rising Sun Pictures
  • University of NSW
  • Country Energy
  • NSW Judicial Commission
  • MoneySwitch
  • De Bortoli Wines
  • Toshiba Australia R&D
  • NSW Roads and Traffic Authority
  • Europcar
  • Australian Arrow (manufacturing)
  • Kennards Hire
  • University of Melbourne
  • Victorian Department of Justice

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