Making Desktop Linux Work for Business

Will It Run with Linux?

One way Linux distributions distinguish themselves is through ease of installation and configuration on a variety of hardware. Overall, hardware support in modern Linux systems is very good and continues to improve. In fact, Linux may actually offer better support for some legacy hardware than newer proprietary operating systems such as Windows Vista.

Occasionally, though, a particular hardware vendor may be reluctant to release specifications or Linux drivers, leaving you with limited or no support under Linux. Typical trouble areas include certain graphics cards and wireless networking hardware, as well as laptop power-management features such as suspend and hibernate.

Remember, also, to consider hardware beyond the PC itself. If your organization makes use of networked printers, scanners, fax servers, VPN gateways, or other workgroup-centered hardware, you'll need to make sure that Linux drivers are available for these devices, too. Your Linux vendor should be able to answer any questions, but be prepared for occasional bad news.

Inconsistent hardware support can make deploying Linux on a wide scale a challenge. Unfortunately, you can't expect any single Linux distribution to behave identically on every PC. Some hardware configurations will always exhibit quirks or glitches that aren't present on others.

Standardizing hardware is your best chance for a smooth installation experience, but this isn't always easy. Even if you identify an ideal PC configuration today, will you still be able to purchase the same machine next year, when your company grows?

Fortunately, an increasing number of hardware vendors are offering systems that are certified for use with Linux, or even ship with Linux pre-installed. Dell offers several Ubuntu Linux systems, for example, while HP and Lenovo favor Suse. If you can purchase Linux-certified hardware consistently, it can save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

Linux: It's the Applications, Stupid

A Linux desktop is more than just the OS. Before you start migrating users to Linux, you'll need to make sure that you can provide software to support all of your organization's essential business functions -- and, most likely, a few you never considered.

Equally important, don't assume that you'll be able to get everything for free. Every major Linux distribution offers repositories of free open source applications that can often be worthy substitutes for commercial Windows software. Occasionally, however, purchasing commercial software for Linux may be the only adequate solution.

The ability to integrate Linux desktops with essential back-end systems and business processes will be crucial to your success. As a general rule, it is easier to support administrative staff on Linux than so-called knowledge workers, but even a front-desk receptionist will need access to certain core capabilities.

Take e-mail, for example. Basic messaging should be no problem under Linux, but more advanced groupware functionality -- such as shared calendaring -- presents a bigger challenge. IBM offers a Lotus Notes client for Linux, and the open source Evolution mail client can integrate with Exchange Server, but neither solution is likely to sit well with groupware power users. And forget about SharePoint; Linux users are shut out.

Linux-friendly messaging and collaboration servers do exist, but switching may not be a realistic option. The business risk associated with replacing a heavily loaded Exchange Server may simply be too great. Also, inadequate integration with Active Directory, for example, can hamper Linux in a corporate environment.

Frustrations like these are inevitable: This is vendor lock-in at work. As a general rule, the leading Linux applications support most of the functionality that users expect from their categories, but proprietary protocols and closed APIs can thwart true compatibility. To expect a one-to-one replacement for every feature of a specific commercial application would be unrealistic.

The same holds true even for basic desktop productivity software. For example, Linux applications handle files saved by Office 2003 and earlier well, but they still lack support for the newer Office 2007 file formats. You'll need to examine the actual workflows within your organization carefully to determine whether it will be feasible to migrate away from Office. Ask tough questions.

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