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Linux and the Enterprise Desktop: Where Are We Today?

James Gray

Issue #171, July 2008

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

Linux making its way out of the server room and onto the desktop has been “just around the corner” for years now. Prognostications of desktop dominance have not materialized, leaving Linux with a market share in the low single digits. Nevertheless, Linux is maturing as a desktop platform for the enterprise and is gaining converts, with a growing number of companies leveraging Linux to get more features for their money. In this article, I take a closer look at the latest trends in desktop Linux in the enterprise, as well as a number of case studies that illustrate how Linux is fully ready to be a robust desktop platform in many situations.

Big Trends

From talking with several people in the industry who promote desktop Linux to the enterprise for a living, my overall impression is that the Linux desktop wave is indeed building. Although interesting and significant implementations exist, more large-scale projects are in the pipeline than have emerged from it. The people I spoke with pointed to trends, but they generally could back them up with only a single example or weren't able to mention the client's name.

Nevertheless, forward movement is occurring for Linux on the enterprise desktop, and the people on the front lines are bullish. For instance, Mindy Anderson, Business Manager for Client Strategies at Red Hat, states that “the desktop is working itself into being disruptive in many industries, including finance, telecommunications and health care”. Meanwhile, Gerry Carr, Marketing Manager at Canonical (commercial supporter of Ubuntu), adds that “we find ourselves at the beginning of a bell curve, where only a minority of potential clients have deployed, and we're engaged in talks with the people who are in the big hump of the curve”. Over at Novell, Guy Lunardi, Senior Product Manager of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, asserts that “we're there from a technological standpoint”, and the critical factor that prevents Linux from going gangbusters, says co-Novellite Michael Applebaum, Product Marketing Manager for the Desktop, is “simply the awareness that desktop Linux is already a very viable platform”.

Barrier Removal

Despite bullishness on the part of Linux vendors, these same companies admit that they remain in barrier-removal mode. Canonical's Carr admits that his sales staff continue to confront objections, such as lack of equivalent Linux-based applications, which often can be resolved conveniently with solutions like virtualization, but sometimes, they can't. Novell's Applebaum notes that his firm must further improve on the interoperability of all ecosystem elements to make them easier to manage, as well as expand hardware and software certification so that customers can acquire complete, preloaded desktop solutions. Although the larger distribution providers, such as Red Hat, Canonical and Novell, have collaborated with Lenovo, Dell and others to preload and certify PCs for Linux, the reality is that the hardware vendors offer fewer options and lack the same hard-sell enthusiasm to hawk Linux. Even today, you can buy a PC from the Lenovo or Dell's on-line stores and never realize that Linux is available.

It also is true that Linux providers at last can say that the OS is intuitive enough for typical office workers who are accustomed to using Windows. This has not always been the case. Novell should be commended for its Better Desktop initiative, which applied a scientific methodology and video capture to examine how real people use Linux, discover its pitfalls and see how its deficiencies can be removed. The investigators captured more than 200 videos of people using Linux and its core applications for everyday tasks. For instance, normal users were examined while doing everything that is fully routine to us geeks—logging on to their system, finding and playing a particular music track, making shortcuts on the desktop, determining available disk space, sending e-mail and more. The reports and videos are fascinating and available on the project's Web site.

Drivers to Adoption of Desktop Linux

Several IT trends are making desktop Linux more attractive to many organizations. One of these is a growing desire to reduce licensing costs. Novell's Lunardi notes how its customer, the automaker Peugeot, decided to cap its number of Microsoft licenses as its workforce grows and offer Linux desktops to new employees. Another trend is the push toward accommodating more types of devices, including mobile and thin clients, as well as allowing users to take their desktops with them wherever they go. Red Hat's Anderson says that “many firms are coming back to a situation where key workloads are centralized”, something that Linux does very well and securely. Similarly, Novell's Applebaum says that San Diego Public Schools chose Linux over other operating systems because it offered the most robust way to run its “Always-On Learning Initiative”, which included integrating 100,000 student laptops and many other types of devices.

A third trend involves avoiding Windows Vista drawbacks, especially the cost of required hardware upgrades and lack of additional features to justify that cost. Linux, with its smaller footprint, may find a great deal of growth opportunity from this situation.

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.

PSA Peugeot Citroen: Let the User Decide

PSA Peugeot Citroen, Europe's second-largest automobile manufacturer, will one day have at least 20,000 of its 72,000 workers running Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. Novell's Guy Lunardi credits Peugeot's move to Linux on its hard-nosed asset management system that identifies internal resources, leading its IT managers to question conventional wisdom and make the best strategic decision for the company. Lunardi also points out that “Novell was able to not only remove technical barriers that stood in the way of adoption, but it also was able to offer superior solutions in areas such as VPNs.”

One unique facet of the Peugeot project is its organic nature, whereby users are allowed to choose which desktop they prefer, Linux or Windows. The firm is finding most users choose Linux and become Linux advocates in the process, which further builds internal support for the OS. Furthermore, most new employees are encouraged to adopt Linux, which has allowed Peugeot to cap its number of Windows licenses and thus save on IT costs, despite the additional growth in IT infrastructure.

Europcar: Save Money and Still Offer Windows Apps

Another convert to desktop Linux, in this case Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop, is the auto-rental firm Europcar Asia Pacific. Europcar CIO Scott Allen explains how he originally looked to desktop Linux “to deliver a fit-for-purpose platform at a reduced price point”. Allen added that this goal has been achieved through significant reduction in licensing costs and the ability to extend the life of otherwise obsolete hardware. Europcar has implemented Linux on a variety of different hardware in its finance department, national call center and branch network, which spreads across Australia and New Zealand. Allen's team customized the Red Hat desktop to deliver a simplified interface, offering many Microsoft Windows applications to users via the Citrix client, as well as Web browsers natively to the Linux desktop. Using Citrix “makes the solution an overall lower cost option but still a great fit against business needs”, said Allen.

A key factor in Europcar's expanding its Linux usage to the desktop was quality support. Because the firm had good, long-term experiences with Red Hat's support for its servers, it felt comfortable diving into the desktop space too.

Thus far, CIO Allen says, his firm's experiences with desktop Linux have been very positive. “The work done to deliver a customized user interface was worthwhile and has meant that very little end-user training has been required.” He adds that “the only negative—and it is only a minor one because of our relationship with Red Hat—is the availability of Linux skills in the market. At times it has been difficult to recruit people with in-depth Linux knowledge.”

Allen's advice to firms trying to decide whether to adopt desktop Linux is to “start with the needs of the end user and evaluate Linux desktop against these needs”. He says if users require Windows applications 100% of the time, Linux desktop probably is not the best solution, even when using something like Citrix. “But if your business applications do not rely on Windows or your users only require part-time access to Windows applications, I would at least include Linux desktop as an option to evaluate”, he added.

Howard County Library: Linux Saves Public Money

Though the Howard County Maryland Public Library is not the largest or most sexy desktop Linux implementation, it was the first example to proudly roll off the tongue of Canonical's Gerry Carr. In 2006, the library had 300 aging PCs whose licenses for Windows XP were about to expire. Realizing it didn't need Windows for its staff and public computers, it became the first public library system in Maryland to use open source. When additional machines are needed, the library can purchase used ones for around $100 that offer the needed functionality. The system estimates that it saved more than $300,000 of public money by not having to upgrade licenses and hardware. Monies saved were used to upgrade computers, purchase software customization and expand library collections. Amy Begg De Groff, the library's Technology Services Department Head, stated that “Because open-source software is available free or at a very modest cost, the library can provide public computers at a fraction of the cost using comparable commercially available software.”

Mosaic: Savings and Security

As an example from the not-for-profit world, the organization Mosaic is in the process of implementing Ubuntu Linux thin clients running on the NoMachine NX Server for its 39 offices in 14 states nationwide. At the time of this writing, 13 offices serving 1,900 users have been migrated, with the remaining offices to migrate by 2009. More than 5,000 employees are projected to be using the system. Users have access to a full Ubuntu desktop, which offers OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Mosaic's corporate CRM and Web-based e-mail applications. Mosaic's two main reasons for switching to Linux were dramatic cost-savings and security. The organization has re-utilized older PCs to run as its thin-client terminals, which precluded the need for large investments in new hardware. Regarding security, Mosaic is able to keep sensitive data centralized in its data center to ensure that all data access is controlled and monitored to meet HIPPA regulations. Wayne Victor, Mosaic's Director of IT Infrastructure, said that “the NX Server is able to handle as many as 100 users per server.”

San Diego Schools: Addressing the Digital Divide

At 135,000 students, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) is the country's eighth largest. During each school day, around 100,000 of those students in grades 3–12 use a Lenovo R-Series ThinkPad laptop running SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop provided by the district as a learning tool. Dubbed the “Always-On Learning Initiative”, the purpose of the program is to promote academic success by giving all students access to the tools they'll need to learn, live and work successfully in the modern world. The name Always-On comes from the fact that students have access to a wireless network anywhere and at all times throughout the district.

Choosing Linux over other operating systems offers several advantages to SDUSD. First, the lower cost of Linux allows SDUSD to reach more students with fewer resources. By reaching more students, the chronic problem of a digital divide between wealthier and poorer students can be addressed. Second, after comparing its options, SDUSD determined that Linux was easier to scale and support, and more types of devices could be utilized. Finally, SDUSD sees that providing a laptop to everyone has great motivational and learning benefits for both teachers and students. Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores said that “students are more interested in and excited about their classroom work” thanks to the program.

Early Adopters Move Linux Forward

The small sample of case studies above illustrate how Linux is fully ready to start taking over more desktops in companies, nonprofits and government offices worldwide. Although we long have been optimistic that Linux's day of glory would come sooner, our 20/20 hindsight allows us to grasp that usability and features had to be improved to meet the needs of most workers. Fortunately, the distribution providers have realized this fact and invested heavily in removing barriers to Linux implementation. Certainly, the maturation of virtualization has helped as well. In addition, the early adopters, whose stories are told here, have helped all of us by implementing Linux despite some unknowns and moved it forward. Now, more-conservative organizations can observe these examples and learn from their experiences, both positive and negative. So our thanks go out to Peugeot, Europcar, Howard County Library, Mosaic, San Diego Schools and the other desktop Linux pioneers for implementing Linux on a large scale and helping make it better. In a few years, you should be able to look back and be amazed at what you started.

James Gray is Linux Journal Products Editor and a graduate student in environmental science and management at Michigan State University. A Linux enthusiast since the mid-1990s, he currently resides in Lansing, Michigan, with his wife and cats.

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