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Desktop Linux serves up big savings

Small businesses can’t ignore the value of Linux on the desktop. Linux Advisor hed: dek: small businesses can’t ignore the value of Linux on the dekstop. by Maggie Biggs

What now seems like eons ago–it was December 1997–I compared the costs of implementing a Linux server versus a Windows NT server and found a wide difference in price without a significant difference in functionality. Since then, obviously, Linux has made strong inroads in the middle-tier and back-end server marketplace.

But what about Linux on the desktop? Many industry observers, pundits, and journalists have speculated as to why businesses have not been adopting the cost-effective Linux platform on the desktop. Opinions have ranged from the geekiness of the platform to a lack of commercial products.

In my mind, there are three principal perceptions that most people have about the Linux desktop, all of which keep users from taking advantage of the platform.

First, many people assume that there are not comparable commercial business applications available for Linux. Not true! Nearly any business application software you might need is available for Linux and usually at a lower cost than other platforms. Moreover, large, well-established companies such as Sun, IBM, and Oracle are offering a wide array of commercial software for the platform in addition to the plethora of fine business application software coming out of the open-source community.

Second, many business leaders assume that they cannot order new PCs without Windows pre-loaded. After speaking to several resellers and retailers, most said they do sell Linux desktop configurations if asked. Many vendors now offer them as standard orders, too. For example, Compaq sells preloaded notebook and desktop systems with the choice of either Red Hat Linux or SuSE Linux.

Third, many businesses are wary of implementing Linux desktops because of a perception that support and training will be difficult. This may have been true back in 1997 when I compared Linux server costs with Windows NT. But today, there exists a bevy of commercial Linux product options and vendor programs that offer flexible options for support and training.

A plethora of Linux help and information is available online via newsgroups, discussion forums, mailing lists, and the like. However, Linux also has arrived within mainstream vendor channels, and you’ll find plenty of help via more traditional mechanisms, such as toll-free help lines.

General-purpose desktops

Many fine open-source and commercial software packages for Linux address specialized business needs, such as computer-aided design (CAD). If you have a specific business requirement, such as the need for Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) software, you can easily find these types of products as well.

But the vast majority of desktop users perform basic functions using general-purpose software. Keeping in mind the majority of users who mainly need general-purpose software on the desktop, I was curious as to the overall cost and functional differences between a general-purpose Red Hat Linux workstation and a general-purpose Windows 2000 Professional desktop.

For my small-business desktop experiment, I compared two identically equipped desktop systems–one running Red Hat Deluxe Linux Workstation and the other running Windows 2000 Professional (see chart). Running the Linux workstation was seven times less expensive than running the equally outfitted Windows desktop.

With the exception of my project scheduling software, every other piece of software on my Linux workstation was a commercially available product. That meant that I could order training and support to keep my staff up to date.

My test desktops included graphical access to all applications; no command-line usage was required. Star Office, in particular, required little training since it offers a very similar metaphor to Microsoft Office. Star Office also supports Microsoft Office formats, so document exchange is a breeze.

Web browsing, e-mail, and instant messaging are also very straightforward to set up and use on Linux. If your end-users are comfortable using these software products on Windows, there will be little to no learning curve to use the same functionality on Linux.

Likewise, I added Adobe Acrobat to both the Linux and Windows desktops. The functionality is the same and users will be able to read Portable Document Format (PDF) documents using identical operations regardless of which desktop they use.

Appgen’s MyBooks could give Intuit’s Quickbooks a run for its money. Not only does MyBooks provide equivalent business accounting functionality for Linux desktops, it is also available on Windows and other platforms, too. The license cost for five users ($99.99) is more reasonable than the single-user license cost ($149.95) for Quickbooks.

I did have to download and install the OPENSCHED project scheduling application, since it was not available as a commercial product. The software, available under the GNU Public License, offers useful project scheduling functionality, including resource tracking and support for Gantt charts.

Desktop images, support, and networking

If you’re worried that Linux desktops will require significant time and effort to install and configure, consider it a non-issue. Once I had established my standard general-purpose Linux desktop, I was able to create an image of it and install 10 more identical Linux desktops in less than 30 minutes across my test network. Of course, you’ll want to purchase the appropriate number of desktop licenses before creating images to distribute throughout your company.

Much like Microsoft’s Windows Update functionality, Red Hat and several other Linux distributions include operating-system update facilities, too. The Red Hat Network lets you access and receive updates to the operating system and includes an automated e-mail notification feature.

You’ll want to purchase support contracts for your commercial Linux software packages. And, you may wish to invest in training one or two people at your company who can then train others as they migrate to Linux-based desktops. You might even consider adopting some open-source software as you become more comfortable using the Linux desktop.

In terms of networking, Linux desktops fit easily into networked environments. Users can share files, access the Web, and network printers as easily as with Windows desktops. The same underlying networking protocols (DHCP, DNS, etc.) that you use with Windows still apply when using Linux on the desktop.

If you’re still somewhat hesitant about adopting a Linux desktop, you might also consider establishing direct contract with firms that offer preloaded Linux desktop options with support and training, such as IBM and Compaq. Both of these companies have made commitments to Linux and open-source software in general, and they have alliances with major Linux partners including Red Hat, Caldera, and SuSE. Alternatively, look locally for service providers who support Linux desktops so you can get help when you need it.

To gauge how economical Linux might be for the desktop needs of your small business, list all of the software you currently use on the desktop to conduct business today. Are there equivalent software products available on Linux? Do they cost less? My desktop test case should give you some idea. Do a little searching and you’ll find a bevy of other software products for the platform.

This is a good time to consider (or perhaps reconsider) Linux on the desktop. General-purpose desktop software has become so commodified that there is no reason not to consider a more economical solution when the functionality is the same.

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