Open-source gets serious: A new window on Linux

Thanks to its streamlined and relatively secure core, the Linux operating system has gradually been winning a place on servers in federal agencies. Now Linux is making inroads on desktop PCs

as well, territory that has long been ruled by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows.

For many years, Linux has been a viable desktop option for those who are as comfortable using a command line as they are using a mouse. Average users, however, have found Linux to be a much more complicated interface than Windows or Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh. But Linux interfaces have become much more user-friendly.

Security is another reason for agencies to consider Linux for desktop computers. The

Windows-borne viruses that have hit in the past year present a challenge for information technology departments that need to closely manage desktop computers to avoid security risks and potential damage to other IT assets, including mission-critical servers.

The amount of time, money and resources needed to secure Windows desktops in large IT settings have begun to add up to an expensive line item on the budget. Thus, many IT departments are looking into Linux as a viable alternative to their current desktop investments.

Linux is especially attractive because:

In many cases, it can be deployed using existing hardware.

It is less frequently targeted by hackers and others looking to exploit security gaps.

Its design makes it less vulnerable to security risks than other operating systems.

Its open-source foundation makes it easier to rapidly identify and resolve security issues; in many cases, this can be accomplished in hours, not days or months.

With security, cost, usability and reliability in mind, we recently set out to evaluate the current state of Linux desktop interfaces and determine just how viable they really are for casual business users.

We tested five Linux desktop solutions: Libra Computer Systems Ltd.'s Libranet 2.8.1 Flagship Edition, Lindows.com Inc.'s LindowsOS 4.5, Lycoris' Desktop/LX, MandrakeSoft Inc.'s Mandrake Linux 9.2 and Xandros Inc.'s Xandros Desktop OS Version 2-Deluxe Edition. None proved to be the clear front-runner. Rather, three of the solutions — the ones from Lindows.com, Lycoris and Xandros — proved evenly matched and ideally suited to replace either Windows or Macintosh systems with ease.

The other two Linux offerings — from Libranet and MandrakeSoft — are viable desktop replacements but don't offer the same level of automation and graphical tools as the other solutions. Lindows, Lycoris and Xandros are good choices for casual business users, while Libranet and Mandrake are solid matches for agency IT staffers and software developers.

Two other items are worth noting about those Linux interfaces. First, agencies can use any of the solutions to better control what is installed on desktop PCs because administrator-level credentials — or special permissions granted to individual users — are necessary for adding or removing software. Moreover, hard-disk file system permissions can be set to prevent users from installing unauthorized software. In short, administrators can keep tight control over the contents of desktop PCs, which bodes well for maintaining licenses and eliminating the security risks associated with users adding their own software.

Second, agency IT staffers and users may not be ready to abandon the comfort of the Windows-based applications they know so well. So Xandros' Linux interface, among others, includes a copy of CodeWeavers Inc.'s CrossOver Office, which enables Linux desktop users to run familiar Windows applications, such as Microsoft Office and IBM Corp.'s Lotus Notes, on the Linux desktop. CrossOver can help preserve existing investments in Windows applications while easing the transition to Linux interfaces. CrossOver Office costs $60 per desktop; volume pricing is available. The software can be installed and used with any of the desktop solutions we tested.

Libranet 2.8.1 Flagship Edition

Libranet is a good choice for developers, systems administrators and technically savvy power users. The product is not as straightforward for casual users as some of the others we tested, but it would be an excellent desktop interface for IT users.

Libranet was easy to install on our existing Intel Corp.-based hardware, and we had no trouble accessing e-mail or creating and revising documents. Accessing the Internet and our local network was also straightforward, and we could easily attach to several network-based printers. However, we had to take more steps to enable network access compared to the other solutions' requirements, which might be a stumbling block for casual users.

With proper authorization, we found it easy to add and remove software using the package-management tools. We also set up an area on the network where approved software could be installed. Here, too, we had no trouble updating the Libranet desktop and were able to access and execute applications on the network without incident.

Libranet does not try to act like other operating systems, such as Windows. For example, the solution sticks to its Linux roots and offers a package-management interface. The other interfaces we tested offer graphical tools for adding and removing software that give no reference to the package paradigm that Linux users have been accustomed to for several years.

When booting, Libranet shows the user what is going on behind the scenes, and the boot process is clearly different from that seen on a Windows desktop. By contrast, other Linux desktop interfaces mask the booting process behind a graphical splash screen to make it look like the familiar Windows start-up process.

Average users will need to spend some time getting comfortable with the interface, but IT staffers will take to Libranet easily, finding it powerful and technically solid.

LindowsOS 4.5

Administrators installing and configuring Lindows will have little to do to get the system up and running. In fact, it is also available in preloaded form from a number of authorized resellers. Agencies using that can supply the reseller with desktop requirements and compress the move to Linux desktops from more than a month to a matter of weeks.

From bootup onward, Lindows exhibits the hallmarks of a mature end-user desktop, which means that the average user will need little training or knowledge to be productive. Although many in the Linux community may not relish the thought of Windows-like interfaces and tools, Lindows makes it very easy for casual users by providing tools and interfaces that resemble the ones they are already familiar with.

We had no trouble locating and accessing Web browsers, e-mail clients and business document applications. Lindows linked to our network printers on the first try from a graphical interface, and we used the included Internet connection tools to access the Web. The included Network Browser also made accessing network shares, which are files on PCs that can be shared with others across a network, very easy.

Unique to Lindows is its Click-N-Run application, which gives authorized users easy access to new software or updates for existing applications. We found it especially compelling that Click-N-Run not only automates the installation of an application but also integrates new applications into the desktop on the fly.

Lycoris Desktop/LX

Like Lindows, the Lycoris interface was easy to install and configure, and administrators who are comfortable with Windows installation routines will have no difficulty getting Lycoris up and running. It is also available preloaded from a number of authorized resellers, which will help shorten deployment times.

Like Lindows, the Lycoris desktop and tools are reminiscent of other interfaces, which means agency users will have little trouble adapting to it. Users will be able to access the Web, e-mail and office documents with ease.

Accessing network shares, printers and the Internet also proved to be a breeze. Graphical tools allow users to point and click for easy access to applications and network resources.

Authorized users can add software using the graphical Update Wizard or the Iris Software Gallery. Administrators can block users from adding software unless authorized.

Mandrake Linux 9.2

MandrakeSoft, long known for its emphasis on the home-based Linux desktop user, also caters to the needs of agency and corporate users. Its ProSuite 9.2 for business includes end-user applications and services, including antivirus software.

We had no trouble setting up Mandrake-powered desktops, and like the other solutions examined here, Windows administrators will be able to easily install Mandrake on desktop PCs. Reseller support is also available for agencies that prefer preloaded applications to network-based installations.

Like Libranet, Mandrake may take some adjustment on the part of users because as it does attempt to emulate Windows, but they should find it easy to work with agency documents, send and receive e-mail, and access Web-based applications through Mandrake.

Moreover, accessing network resources, including applications and network-based printers, is a breeze with Mandrake. Like Xandros, it also includes a limited license to CodeWeaver's CrossOver to ease the transition to the Linux interface.

Xandros Desktop OS Version 2-Deluxe Edition

The Xandros Desktop OS is solid and easy to get up and running. Agencies can also order Xandros preinstalled from authorized resellers. We had no trouble installing and configuring several Xandros desktops in short order.

Users will find the Xandros interface comfortable and easy to adapt to. Like Mandrake, it includes support for CrossOver to ease the transition. Users can run Microsoft Office, Lotus Notes and other Windows applications on the Xandros desktop.

We did not find Xandros as easily adaptable to network resources as some of the other solutions we tested. However, once we added the LinNeighborhood application, we were able to access network shares very easily. Graphical tools in the Control Center helped us smoothly connect to network printers.

In addition, we had no trouble accessing e-mail and Web browsers. We also tried the OpenOffice productivity suite and created and exchanged office documents with other test users without any problems.

The penguin takes on heterogeneous computing

Our Linux desktops were installed and tested in a network configuration that mirrors what many agencies and corporations are using today. Our Linux desktops interacted successfully with Windows systems, Macintosh machines and server-based resources, including FreeBSD, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, and IBM Corp.'s iSeries and AIX.

In terms of end-user training requirements, Lindows, Lycoris and Xandros present the least costly options for switching to a Linux desktop interface. Libranet and Mandrake may require more training but are still worth considering.

The results of our tests will not be the last word on Linux desktop interfaces.

As they say, your results may vary. But we did find that Linux is a viable desktop

alternative for casual users in a business setting. Because agencies have different desktop requirements, we recommend conducting a proof-of-concept study to choose the best Linux product for your agency.

Given the current maturity of Linux desktop interfaces, agencies should begin conducting such evaluations now. The tools are more mature and comfortable than ever for business use. Cost savings, ease-of-use, security and reliability are clearly evident.

Biggs, a senior engineer and freelance technical writer based in Northern California, is a regular Federal Computer Weel analyst. She has been using Linux on the desktop since 1996. She can be reached at maggiebiggs@acm.org.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above