Making Desktop Linux Work for Business

Bridging Windows and Linux

You may find that certain employees rely heavily on specific Windows software for which there is no adequate Linux equivalent. In such cases, you have several choices, though none is ideal.

One option is to configure desktops as dual-boot systems, which allows the user to select either Linux or Windows from a menu at startup. This isn't very efficient, however, and it can also be problematic; for example, files created under Windows will be accessible from Linux, but not the other way around. Don't be surprised if users lapse into old habits and spend most of their time in Windows.

Another method is to install virtualization software for Linux, such as VMware Workstation or Xen, and run Windows inside a virtual machine. This will allow users to access the Windows applications they need while still performing most of their tasks using Linux software.

These alternatives present two big problems, however. First, they both require a licensed copy of Windows for each machine, negating any cost savings of Linux. Second, they effectively split each workstation into two complete systems, doubling the IT management workload. Because of this, neither method is a viable long-term solution, so should only be used as a stopgap measure while you phase out Windows.

A third solution is to use Wine, a Windows compatibility layer for Linux that allows many Windows applications to run as if they were native Linux software. Not every application works properly with Wine, however -- you should consult the project's application database to see if your software is compatible. A commercial version called CrossOver Linux, which offers additional installation and runtime support for selected applications, is also available.

Finally, a number of thin-client solutions, available from such vendors as Citrix and Sun Microsystems, allows Windows applications to run in terminal windows on Linux desktops. This method has the additional advantage of favoring lower-end hardware. Be aware, however, that most such solutions will require additional infrastructure investments to get up and running.

Making Good on Your Linux Strategy

Installing Linux onto a few desktops is easy enough. Successfully migrating a large number of PCs, however, calls for centralized management and maintenance capabilities. Windows customers have it easier in this area, although work is being done to narrow Microsoft's lead. Still, a healthy number of options are available for managing Linux desktops today.

Here, again, it is helpful to standardize on a single, enterprise-focused Linux vendor. Novell's well-established ZenWorks management software supports both Red Hat and Suse systems, while Red Hat offers centralized software management through its Red Hat Network product (which will soon be open source). Users of other distributions may need to search for options from third-party vendors, such as Hyperic.

The bottom line is that, while Linux is a mature and fully functional desktop OS, the process of migrating away from Windows is complex and should not be undertaken lightly. An effective migration strategy must set realistic goals, plan contingencies, and be flexible enough to change direction in the event of unforeseen roadblocks. Making the break from proprietary software vendors isn't easy, and that's by design. Open source developers have made the first critical steps for you. Now it's up to you to take it the rest of the way.

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