Bridging Linux and Windows: Top Apps

Tuesday Sep 6th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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The dividing line between the Linux and Windows platforms gets thinner all the time.

Nearly every day I hear about people who express interest in taking the leap into the Linux space. What would-be Linux users fail to realize is that there's software that makes switching between the Linux and Windows worlds almost effortless.

So in the interest of sharing this knowledge, I've put together this article to share different applications and technologies that can be helpful to blur the lines between the two platforms.

Tools offered right out of the box

When most people think of sending a document from a Windows PC to one running Linux, it's not uncommon to forget that there are technologies that can make this task reasonably seamless. Obviously these solutions need to be setup to work between platforms initially, but once this has been done it's all smooth sailing from then on.

Samba - One important example of a Linux friendly technology is called Samba. Using Samba between a Linux and Windows PC allows the end-user to comfortably print from one platform to another with a printer attached. It's helpful with cross-platform file sharing as well. In both instances though, Samba isn't secure. So it's best left to usage on a secure LAN or used with care via a WLAN.

A Web browser - Another overlooked example is your pre-installed Web browser. Regardless of which one you happen to prefer, a browser generally works the same on any given platform. Whether you are using webmail or collaborative web documents, the list of web apps that are available to you with a browser window open are staggering.

Connecting to Windows apps with Linux

Don't buy the common line that you cannot use Windows software if you're a Linux user. These days, dual-booting is only mandatory for those people using CPU intensive applications on the Windows desktop. There are more viable options to consider that allow you to run Linux and use Windows software at the same time.

VNC – Whether it's used through a SSH tunnel or locally, VNC is a fantastic way to use a separate PC without having to sit right in front of it.

What's really great about using VNC is that you can run Linux as your main desktop OS, while running a Windows application server "headless" (without a monitor) somewhere within the office. Full-screen enabled, this option gives you 100% of the processing power you need to run legacy Windows applications without having to turn your back on the Linux desktop in the process.

Wine – Using the free Wine software – which is an emulator that provides a compatability layer – won’t help you with all Windows applications on the Linux desktop. However, running Wine can be reliable when running software with a proven Wine compatibility track record.

Instead of accessing a separate PC or running in a virtual environment, Wine allows you to run Windows applications within the confines of the Winelb (Wine software library). This means that with Wine installed, some Windows applications will run on a Linux-based PC without the need for a Windows operating system to power them.

Virtual Machine – Regardless of your preferred virtual machine, access to one translates into fluid access to another OS when needed. One common approach to dealing with legacy Windows applications is to run the virtual machine on the Linux desktop.

In this way, you're working within your preferred environment without having to boot to a separate PC to get access to non-Linux software. This approach does require access to an installation of the Windows operating system, but it can prove to be more convenient that dual-booting.

Synergy – Using Synergy is almost like running a KVM setup, only you don't need to press any buttons to switch between desktops. I've used the Synergy front-end known as QuickSynergy for sometime now. To date, it has never failed me and allows me to reach additional resources on other desktops, as if they were all connected.

It's also a handy alternative to relying on VNC or a virtual machine in that I don't have to do anything other than move my mouse over to the next desktop.

Dropbox – Without a doubt, Dropbox is the single best way to share small files between desktops without any specific configuration needed. When paired together with something like VNC or Synergy, moving files between desktops is drop dead simple. This isn't to say that I don't also rely heavily on SSH access, rather that Dropbox requires zero setup time by comparison.

Treating a Windows box like Linux

It's important to remember that Linux isn't a fit for every person out there. Sometimes, there are circumstances that limit how much Linux access can be brought into the workplace. Realizing this limitation, below are some helpful options to keep within your company rules while still allowing you Linux access.

andLinux – For those people who simply want access to some of the Linux experience, minus the desktop, I suggest looking into andLinux. I'd go so far as to suggest that andLinux is the biggest blurring of the OS lines available between Windows and Linux on the desktop.

A full Ubuntu experience within Windows minus the Ubuntu desktop itself is what andLinux has to offer. I believe andLinux to be beneficial for anyone wanting access to specific Linux functionality without wanting to actually boot into the Linux desktop itself.

Unetbootin – When faced with a Windows PC that cannot share its drive due to company policy that also lacks a CD drive from which to boot from, Unetbootin offers a useful alternative. Unetbootin makes it simple to create a bootable Live Linux installation on a USB flash drive.

Once installed, just boot from the flash drive and enjoy your new Linux installation. Unetbootin also provides its users with a variety of great Linux distributions from which to boot from. You will also be provided with the option to save files on the flash drive in between boots.

Wubi – Despite its speed limitations on a fragmented Windows hard drive, Wubi offers a viable alternative to dual-booting or running from a LiveCD. Installing Wubi is done from within Windows like any other program.

Once it's installed, the Windows boot sequence will display a new Ubuntu boot option. Uninstalling is also a snap. Just remove Wubi like you would with any other program.

LiveCD – Without a doubt, it was the LiveCD that really blurred the lines between Linux and Windows for me personally. Years ago when I first discovered a LiveCD distro called Knoppix, I was amazed at how "available" Linux felt to me.

For the first time, I was able to run a Linux distro without creating a special partition for it. Flash forward to now, LiveCDs are still very helpful as they allow us to test hardware before installing new distributions.

Is the future web software?

One thing that comes up in discussion groups is the idea of web applications blurring the lines between platforms. Some even suggest that platform loyalty won't matter much longer.

I happen to think that this won't happen until we see better support for offline access to web applications, in much the same spirit as Google Gears. Without a broadband connection, web apps just aren't that impressive. So the idea that web-based software is a replacement platform for specific applications might be a little premature.

Clearly, though, we're getting closer to "cloud" applications becoming something we can reliably plug our PCs into. And with many new enterprise solutions being offered through our workplace LANs, the barriers between Windows and Linux PCs will become less important with each passing year.

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