Linux and the Enterprise Desktop: Where Are We Today?

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

The distribution providers are finding several types of workers ready for desktop Linux. Novell, for example, classifies its target customers this way:

  • Office workers—marketing associates, office managers, operations managers and insurance agents who rely on a robust desktop or notebook platform for e-mail, Web browsing, instant messaging, multimedia applications and office productivity tools. Linux offers cost savings on hardware requirements, as well as for the OS and applications.

  • Transactional workers—bank sales/service representatives, call-center representatives and other service personnel who spend most of their time using a few specialized business applications, but who also require collaboration applications, such as an e-mail client and Web browser, and productivity applications, such as a word processor or spreadsheet.

  • Thin-client workers—companies with mobile workers in multiple locations who want to keep data consolidated are ideal for thin-client solutions. Unneeded software and hardware costs can be removed from the budget. Users can be provided with the right applications when and where they need them.

  • POS workers—front-line sales and service workers who deal with customers that need a reliable and user-friendly technology for enabling transactions. These solutions also could be self-service kiosks. Linux offers advantages, such as reliability, convenient security patches and immunity to viruses.

  • Technical workstation—the creative and analytical workers in an organization who design products, create film animation, run mathematical models and so on. In these situations, Linux offers the same reliability as UNIX at a fraction of the cost.

Early Adopters

It's safe to say that the companies already deploying desktop Linux are early adopters. Gerry Carr of Canonical says that those entities who already have moved to Linux tend to be smaller organizations “that offer their savvy technical guys lots of autonomy”. Another large share of early-adopter organizations are public entities, which have a strong mandate for cost-cutting. Recall the fanfare back in 2003 when the city of Munich, Germany, snubbed Microsoft in favor of deploying 14,000 Linux desktops. Since then, public entities of all sizes have leveraged Linux for public benefit. For instance, Canonical's most highly touted implementations range from 150,000 Linux desktops in the Macedonian public schools and 70,000 in the French National Police, down to 300 seats in the Howard County (Maryland) Public Library system.

Though many large private companies also have adopted desktop Linux, more case studies are available overseas than here in the US. The distribution providers say this is because US-based firms are more secretive, as they see Linux as a comparative advantage. Red Hat's Anderson told me “I could rattle off names, but you can't print them”. And, although other spokespeople also offered company names off the record, they remained much less numerous than the overseas examples. Some larger organizations who openly use desktop Linux include the French automaker Peugeot (20,000 clients), the Australian affiliate of Europcar automobile rental, the American firm ECI Telecom (3,000 clients), Taiwan's Realtek Semiconductor (2,000 clients) and the German insurance company LVM Versicherungen (8,500 clients).

Arguably the most mature sector for desktop Linux is the corporate workstation, where the dynamics of the game are a bit different. Although the absolute number of Linux workstations is not large in real terms, Linux's share is substantial. HP's David Ramsey, Product Marketing Manager for Linux workstation software, notes that Linux is well suited to the task-oriented nature of workstations. Companies with specialized tasks, such as modeling, forecasting and animations, which historically have been housed on UNIX workstations, gradually have migrated to the Linux platform. Ramsey says that HP and others have been especially successful in industries, such as oil and gas (geological modeling); finance (real-time data processing); animation studios, such as DreamWorks and Pixar; and government labs. Mechanical CAD, electronic design automation and governmental applications in national security are up-and-coming applications for Linux workstations. Ramsey also added that expansion of this space often is contingent on application providers porting their products to Linux, as well as the cost of migration. “The reward must be substantial to do it”, he said.

Case Studies of Desktop Linux in the Enterprise

Replete with context on desktop Linux in the enterprise, let's explore some interesting, representative case studies. Most case studies here were emphasized by distribution and solution providers as their most interesting projects. The implementations are in entities of various sizes in both the private and public sectors.


James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal.