Linux in Government: Linux Desktop Reviews, Part 4 - JDS

by Tom Adelstein

During the launch of Sun's Java Desktop System (JDS), the company touted its product as a real alternative to Microsoft Windows. During an interview, Peder Ulander, the then director of marketing for the Desktop Solutions team at Sun, said, "The Java Desktop System is a comprehensive and secure enterprise desktop environment that runs on Solaris and Linux. It provides the enterprise with the first viable alternative to Windows in 15 years, by offering a complete feature set at a fraction of the cost of a Windows upgrade."

Peder also said:

From the perspective of a feature-to-feature comparison, we offer more than a traditional Microsoft solution, since we are integrating applications such as StarOffice and an email and collaboration program. These services cost an additional $600 on a Windows platform. At the end of the day, we focused on building a complete solution that would enable CIOs to easily migrate their transactional and knowledge workers from their existing solution to a more open, secure, and cost-effective alternative. We have integrated the major application components, made the desktop extremely intuitive and easy to use, and leveraged the security of a UNIX-based operating environment. This saves CIOs money both in Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA).

Fifteen months later, we have not seen the market embrace Sun's entry. Is JDS, in fact, ready as an enterprise desktop? Have other factors interfered with Sun's marketing efforts? Let's take a look.

Business Model

As Peder indicated in the quote above, the Java Desktop System runs on Solaris and Linux. At the time of that article, however, Sun had released only JDS for Linux. Most analysts therefore believed Sun planned a Linux strategy with JDS. Many of Sun's Reseller partners also viewed JDS as a Linux strategy.

In actuality, Sun's enterprise desktop strategy involves an infrastructure change. To make money, Sun has to move hardware. Sun first and foremost is a hardware company, and its operating systems exists mainly to sell hardware. Similar statements have been made about Apple's software--it exists only to move hardware.

If you contact Sun about its alternate desktop, the company is likely to present you with a proposal to move from standard PC hardware to its Ray thin client infrastructure. You can find Ray client-server information on Sun's solution page. Ray thin client hardware is one of Sun's major lines of business.

A Confusing Proposition?

When you connect the dots, Sun's Ray opportunity appears chaotic. Let's look at some inconsistencies in what the company says and does. First, to use the Sun Ray system, you need a server-level computer and an operating system that can support the Sun Ray 3.0 server-side software. The workstations connected to the server hardware do not run copies of the operating system or any other software. They are stateless and consist primarily of a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. The server runs the operating system and the Sun Ray Server 3.0 software. The server-side software paints the pixels on the thin-client monitors, and users thinks they are using a full-fledged PC.

The current version, Sun Ray Server Software 3.0, runs with UltraSPARC servers using Solaris 8, Solaris 9 and/or Trusted Solaris 8. Solaris 10 does not support the Sun Ray server-side software. These Solaris versions require UltraSPARC processors; Solaris x86 does not support the Sun Ray 3.0 server-side software.

Sun Ray Server 3.0 also runs on x86 processor computers running three operating systems: Sun's Linux JDS operating system Release 2, Red Hat Enterprise Server AS 3 and SUSE Enterprise Linux 8, all in 32 bit mode. Sun's Linux JDS Release 2 supports the Sun Ray server-side software. Release 3 of the Linux JDS is slated for launch later in 2005, but it does not support the Ray server-side software as it is based on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server version 9.

Running Sun Rays

To use the Sun Ray server, one has to configure a supported hardware platform, load one of the supported operating systems mentioned above and install the Sun Ray Server 3.0 software product. The Sun Ray Server 3.0 uses the underlying operating system to paint the thin client desktop. So, if you use Solaris 9, users see only the older GNOME 1.4 or 2.0 desktop--not JDS. If you use Linux JDS Release 2, the Sun Ray Server 3.0 paints the thin client monitors with JDS R2. Note: Linux JDS R2 uses SUSE Linux Enterprise Server version 8.0.

Now one can see why Sun had to use the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server when building its enterprise desktop. You need a server-class product to power the Sun Ray thin clients. On a single-user machine, Linux JDS might seem like overkill. Just consider it a powerful Linux workstation.

Back to Sun's Business Model

Again, Sun's business plan calls for software that sells hardware. So, if you want the Sun Ray solution, you have to settle for older Sun versions of Solaris for the UltraSPARC and older versions of Linux distributions. All of the x86 solutions run only in 32-bit mode. Sun, however, only builds 64-bit AMD workstations. The Athlon workstations do support 32-bit operating systems, however, their chassis and cases do not provide solutions for RAID 5. As a result, you need external storage if you want RAID 5 or better levels of system continuity.

At this point, you might ask where Sun's alternative desktop play against Microsoft sits? In the Peder Ulander interview linked to above, dated December 2003, an exchange occurred between the interviewer and Peder that seems to contradict Sun's eventual strategy:

Interviewer: A Sun study found that 45% of Fortune 2000 CIOs were looking for desktop alternatives in the next 6 months. What message do you have for them?

Ulander: If they are looking for an alternative that provides them with all of the functions they need in an open, secure environment that works with their existing infrastructure and improves their bottom line, then we have a solution for them with the Java Desktop System.

With JDS already available as Release 3 in Solaris 10 and the upcoming version of Linux, Sun's original message thus seems pretty confusing. JDS, in fact, does not work in existing Microsoft infrastructures as it does not come with Samba 3 and does not have the capability to work with Microsoft Active Directory.

Sun does have a capable design team, and JDS provides a high quality look and feel. The StarOffice7 productivity suite does offer significant interoperability with Microsoft Office's file formats. JDS also provides a number of core applications. A screen shot of the JDS desktop is shown in Figure 1.

Linux in Government: Linux Desktop Reviews, Part 4 - JDS

Figure 1. JDS Desktop

As you can see, the desktop has an appealing look and feel. Microsoft Windows users should see similarities to their existing desktops, which makes transitioning easy. As Ulander stated, "We have integrated the major application components, [making] the desktop extremely intuitive and easy to use...".

Hard Questions

We have asked some difficult questions about enterprise support in this series on various Linux desktop offerings (see Resources_. In fairness, we asked each company the same questions. Here's how Sun's JDS stacks up:

  • What kind of support organization does Sun offer related to users? If you run into a problem, can you contact someone for help? How, over the phone or by e-mail?

    Customers that have purchased Sun Java Desktop can receive installation and configuration support for 60 days. Any other problems require customers to purchase support, as it is not bundled with the product. Per-incident phone and e-mail support is available to single users of the Sun Java Desktop System. E-mail and phone support costs $40.00, plus $3.98 for credit-card handling, per incident. Sun offers support in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Brazilian Portuguese. The support is available from 9 am to 5 pm local time, Monday through Friday.

    Sun requires individual users to submit a support request through Sun's Web site. Sun says that users can expect a response the next business day. Phone support also requires a Web request, and call-back times average four hours during working hours.

  • How big is Sun's support organization? Does the company out-source its support?

    Sun out-sources its support for Linux. Sun did not confirm the size of its outsourcers. Sun offers service packages through its reseller channel. Resellers then offer services as a package from Sun.

    For multi-user support, the customer must submit and view his or her support cases on-line. Again, Sun partners provide support with availability between 8 am and 8 pm, Monday through Friday, for English, German, French, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese speakers.

  • Does Sun have a professional services organization? If someone wants to buy a large number of desktops, how would Sun handle a big order?

    One might find it difficult to say whether Sun offers formal professional support for Linux. The definition used in our desktop reviews has considered professional services something akin to high-level system integrators. Sun, however, defines its 200 pre-sales and post-sales engineers as its professional service team.

    For large or complex deployments, Sun offers deployment services. The personnel for those engagements appear to come from the sales organization Sun calls professional services. This seems somewhat confusing, and we do not know if that group supports Sun's channel partners or end users directly.

  • Sun historically has offered documentation for the user. How about technical documentation, is there anything for the administrator?

    Sun offers user documentation. Some administrator documentation exists here. We do not know if Sun's offerings listed below provide separate published user documentation.

  • What kind of solution/provider ecosystem exists? Does Sun have resellers? How robust is that reseller organization?

    As stated previously, Sun has a channel partner program. The channel is a robust ecosystem, but few Sun resellers focus on Linux. Resellers offer Sun hardware solutions, which have a high degree of dependency on the current software offerings.

  • What is Sun's server strategy? Does the company provide back-office functionality and identity management?

    Sun markets back-office solutions under the Java Enterprise System. These tools include Sun Java Application Platform Suite, Sun Java Identity Management Suite, Sun Java Communications Suite, Sun Java Availability Suite and Sun Java Web Infrastructure Suite. Sun also offers Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS 3 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

  • What tools exist for rolling out and managing the desktops? Does the company offer on-site training?

    JDS Release 2 utilizes Sun Control Station 2.1 and Sun Java Desktop System Configuration Manager, Release 1. The tools for JDS R2 will reach end-of-life soon, and new tools will be available later in 2005 for JDS R3.

    Sun offers consulting that focused on the use of thin clients. Sun provides services around the design, building and validation of Java Desktop System solutions. According to Sun's Web site, the company's offerings include Workshop for Java Desktop System, Proof of Concept for Java Desktop System and Architecture and Implementation for Java Desktop System.

  • How can administrators and help-desk people learn to provide desk-side support in their own companies? Does curriculum exist?

    Sun continues to provide robust educational facilities for legacy UNIX products. The company also offers Java Desktop System support services for Sun Java Desktop System HelpDesk Support, Sun Java Desktop System Managed Desktop Support and Sun Java Desktop System Professional Support Program.

Final Notes

As you can see by the answers to our "hard questions", Sun appears to provide the necessary support and infrastructure for its Sun Ray solution. However, given the software support offered for the Sun Ray solution, the message has many incongruities. Does Sun really support a viable Linux desktop? That answer seems to have changed since JDS's inception. How can company officials attack Red Hat and then show it as a supported solution for the Sun Ray? How can one rely on Red Hat as a viable Sun offering without wondering if Sun suddenly might pull the rug out from under a purchase?

We feel that CIOs should approach any of Sun's desktop offerings with caution. The inconsistencies in the Sun message and Sun's tactics seem apparent to us. Our advice: proceed with caution and do your due diligence.

Tom Adelstein works as an Analyst with Hiser+Adelstein, headquartered in New York City. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop and author of an upcoming book on Linux system administration, to be published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has been consulting and writing articles and books about Linux since early 1999.

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