Linux and the Enterprise Desktop: Where Are We Today?

Desktop Linux is maturing, and many organizations are taking notice.

Linux making its way out of the server room and onto the desktop has been “just around the corner” for years now. Prognostications of desktop dominance have not materialized, leaving Linux with a market share in the low single digits. Nevertheless, Linux is maturing as a desktop platform for the enterprise and is gaining converts, with a growing number of companies leveraging Linux to get more features for their money. In this article, I take a closer look at the latest trends in desktop Linux in the enterprise, as well as a number of case studies that illustrate how Linux is fully ready to be a robust desktop platform in many situations.

Big Trends

From talking with several people in the industry who promote desktop Linux to the enterprise for a living, my overall impression is that the Linux desktop wave is indeed building. Although interesting and significant implementations exist, more large-scale projects are in the pipeline than have emerged from it. The people I spoke with pointed to trends, but they generally could back them up with only a single example or weren't able to mention the client's name.

Nevertheless, forward movement is occurring for Linux on the enterprise desktop, and the people on the front lines are bullish. For instance, Mindy Anderson, Business Manager for Client Strategies at Red Hat, states that “the desktop is working itself into being disruptive in many industries, including finance, telecommunications and health care”. Meanwhile, Gerry Carr, Marketing Manager at Canonical (commercial supporter of Ubuntu), adds that “we find ourselves at the beginning of a bell curve, where only a minority of potential clients have deployed, and we're engaged in talks with the people who are in the big hump of the curve”. Over at Novell, Guy Lunardi, Senior Product Manager of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, asserts that “we're there from a technological standpoint”, and the critical factor that prevents Linux from going gangbusters, says co-Novellite Michael Applebaum, Product Marketing Manager for the Desktop, is “simply the awareness that desktop Linux is already a very viable platform”.

Barrier Removal

Despite bullishness on the part of Linux vendors, these same companies admit that they remain in barrier-removal mode. Canonical's Carr admits that his sales staff continue to confront objections, such as lack of equivalent Linux-based applications, which often can be resolved conveniently with solutions like virtualization, but sometimes, they can't. Novell's Applebaum notes that his firm must further improve on the interoperability of all ecosystem elements to make them easier to manage, as well as expand hardware and software certification so that customers can acquire complete, preloaded desktop solutions. Although the larger distribution providers, such as Red Hat, Canonical and Novell, have collaborated with Lenovo, Dell and others to preload and certify PCs for Linux, the reality is that the hardware vendors offer fewer options and lack the same hard-sell enthusiasm to hawk Linux. Even today, you can buy a PC from the Lenovo or Dell's on-line stores and never realize that Linux is available.

It also is true that Linux providers at last can say that the OS is intuitive enough for typical office workers who are accustomed to using Windows. This has not always been the case. Novell should be commended for its Better Desktop initiative, which applied a scientific methodology and video capture to examine how real people use Linux, discover its pitfalls and see how its deficiencies can be removed. The investigators captured more than 200 videos of people using Linux and its core applications for everyday tasks. For instance, normal users were examined while doing everything that is fully routine to us geeks—logging on to their system, finding and playing a particular music track, making shortcuts on the desktop, determining available disk space, sending e-mail and more. The reports and videos are fascinating and available on the project's Web site.

Drivers to Adoption of Desktop Linux

Several IT trends are making desktop Linux more attractive to many organizations. One of these is a growing desire to reduce licensing costs. Novell's Lunardi notes how its customer, the automaker Peugeot, decided to cap its number of Microsoft licenses as its workforce grows and offer Linux desktops to new employees. Another trend is the push toward accommodating more types of devices, including mobile and thin clients, as well as allowing users to take their desktops with them wherever they go. Red Hat's Anderson says that “many firms are coming back to a situation where key workloads are centralized”, something that Linux does very well and securely. Similarly, Novell's Applebaum says that San Diego Public Schools chose Linux over other operating systems because it offered the most robust way to run its “Always-On Learning Initiative”, which included integrating 100,000 student laptops and many other types of devices.

A third trend involves avoiding Windows Vista drawbacks, especially the cost of required hardware upgrades and lack of additional features to justify that cost. Linux, with its smaller footprint, may find a great deal of growth opportunity from this situation.

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James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal

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