Linux Desktop: Seven Leading Applications

Monday Apr 2nd 2007 by Jeff Vance
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Profiles of products equipped to play a key role in the adoption of the Linux desktop: what they do, their strengths and weakness, and their management team.

While many CIOs like the idea of Linux in principle, most of those who have shifted have done so in limited ways. Committing to Linux on servers can be justified through cost and performance considerations, but when it comes to the desktop, most enterprises are still reluctant.

With so many applications so tightly linked to Microsoft operating systems, the thought of migrating all that data is daunting. Beyond that, finding the appropriate open-source counterparts to the most critical applications, fine-tuning those applications, and retraining both IT and end users are all potential show-stoppers.

However, it’s wrong to think that migration is virtually impossible, and as Vista begins to penetrate the market, requiring application upgrades anyway, now might be the time to take the leap.

For those serious about considering Linux as a desktop alternative, here are seven applications and open-source projects that could help tip the scales towards Linux, moving it beyond servers to full enterprise adoption.

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1. Versora’s Progression Desktop

What it does: Versora’s Progression Desktop migration software automates the process of moving files, settings, and data from Windows-based applications to Linux. The software also facilitates Windows-to-Windows migrations and can be used to upgrade to Vista.

How it will help you: Let’s be honest here, most Windows-to-Linux migration is done by open-source true believers and experimental techies. It happens on a small scale, one machine at a time. When it’s done organizationally, it usually involves a limited number of devices and only a single department or work group.

If you ask those same true believers and techies to replicate this for hundreds or thousands of users, even the most intrepid ones will contemplate strangling you. There are simply too many data types, appearance preferences, networking options, and application settings to do this manually.

This is where Versora comes in, automating the migration process. Versora’s Progression Desktop moves critical data, application settings, network settings, desktop settings, directory structures, etc. in a predictable way that can be automated by your IT staff.

Obstacles to adoption: As of now, migration tools are niche items, since enterprise adoption of Linux on the desktop has been slow. On the other hand, Versora’s ability to migrate data between Microsoft OSes means that its success isn’t entirely tethered to Linux.

Another consideration is the Web Services/Software as a Service trend. If these applications ever do migrate online, something like Progression Desktop won’t be nearly as alluring in the long run.

Developer: Versora, in Santa Barbara, CA.

Management Team: Mike Sheffey, CEO, previously served as VP of sales and professional services at Miramar Systems, which was acquired by Computer Associates in 2004.

2. CodeWeavers’ CrossOver Linux

What it does: Provides a middleware layer between Linux and Windows applications.

How it will help you: Not ready to commit completely to Linux? Not sure you like the idea of upgrading to Vista either? Concerned about continuing support of your legacy Windows applications? Sick of dealing with Patch Tuesdays?

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CrossOver Linux could be just what you’re looking for. One reason many balk at switching to Linux is that they fear losing their favorite applications. After all, part of why Microsoft has such a stranglehold on enterprise OS deployments is the nearly ubiquitous use of applications like Outlook and PowerPoint. Even as replacements to these apps emerge, people then start worrying about their niche or industry-specific applications, which often have no Linux or Mac counterparts.

CodeWeavers’ CrossOver Linux corrects this problem. Based on the open-source Wine Project, CrossOver Linux provides an API that allows Windows applications to integrate with GNOME and KDE, and enables those applications to run in a Linux environment as if they were doing so natively.

You can now run Word, Excel, Outlook, Photoshop, FrameMaker, Quicken, and many other applications on a Linux distribution. CrossOver Linux also supports many Explorer browser plugins, such as QuickTime and Shockwave, enabling them to operate directly on whichever Linux browser you choose.

CrossOver Linux also provides what the company calls “Bottles.” These create virtual Windows environments, each with a discrete compatibility layer that isolates each application. The point here is to improve stability, while also avoiding potential interoperability issues.

The net benefit is that you can ditch Microsoft OSes and their attendant problems, while retaining the applications. An additional benefit is that you’re less at risk when it comes to viruses and malware, since the underlying OS is no longer Windows.

For enterprise installations, CodeWeavers provides a CrossOver Server version, which enables server-based versions of things like Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes.

Obstacles to adoption: CrossOver Linux isn’t the only middleware provider out there. Win4Lin, for instance, offers similar functionality. An advantage CrossOver Linux has, however, is that it doesn’t require Windows licenses. Win4Lin acts more as a virtualization tool, allowing the Windows OS to run as a guest over Linux, with the applications supported by the Windows OS. CrossOver Linux, on the other hand, relies on an API that allows the applications themselves to run as if natively.

CodeWeavers also earns street cred by being the principal corporate backer of the Wine Project, an open-source initiative that is re-implementing the Win32 API under UNIX. Wine makes it possible for Unix-based OSes (like OS X and Linux) to run Windows applications. While users could conceivably opt for Wine instead of CrossOver Linux, Wine requires a lot of technical know-how that CrossOver Linux automates for the end user.

Finally, CodeWeavers has started to support Windows-based games, and it has long supported various media players. This isn’t a big requirement in the enterprise, per se, but with the work-home divide getting fuzzier all the time, CodeWeavers’ ability to support games and things like iTunes is certainly a plus.

Developer: CodeWeavers, in Saint Paul, MN

Management Team: Jeremy White, founder and CEO, previously was the founder and CTO of Holten, White and Associates, a Minneapolis-based computer consulting firm. Alexandre Julliard, CTO, was one of the first developers of Wine when it started in 1993. In 1994, he assumed the responsibility for maintaining the Wine project, and has led the project ever since. Jon Parshall, COO, has a background in business and systems consulting.

3. OpenOffice.org

What it does: Offers an open-source alternative to the Microsoft Office suite.

How it will help you: In any enterprise environment, the typical Office suite is a must. Word, PowerPoint, and Excel are practically standards, and they are so tightly coupled with Microsoft OSes that the Office suite alone is enough to justify vendor-lock for many CIOs.

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However, OpenOffice.org offers a viable alternative. OpenOffice.org has its roots in StarOffice, which was developed by StarDivision and later acquired by Sun. After Sun released the StarOffice source code in 2000, OpenOffice.org was born. Supporting the OpenDocument standard, it is available under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL).

One thing to be aware of is that OpenOffice.org does not offer the email, calendar, and contact applications included in Outlook and commonly bundled as part of the Office suite. You’ll have to select something like Evolution or Mozilla Thunderbird to fill that void.

PIM features are on the OpenOffice.org roadmap, according to Michael Bemmer, who is engineering director at Sun and is also in charge of the development of OpenOffice.org and StarOffice. These will be based on Mozilla Lightning, which is an extension of Thunderbird. Lightning is a relatively new projects that adds calendar and task features to Thunderbird, while providing support for PDAs.

Obstacles to Adoption: It’s not inaccurate to think of OpenOffice.org as Sun’s attempt to chip away at Microsoft’s market share. Many open-source evangelists aren’t big fans of this sort of corporate parenting, believing it sullies the intentions of the open-source movement. While Microsoft dominates the market, OpenOffice.org claims to have at least 50 million users. In an average week, 100,000 people register copies of OpenOffice.org.

OpenOffice.org has momentum in the open-source community, is perfectly stable, and is rather feature-rich. Potential threats to OpenOffice.org include Google, through Google Docs. However, Sun and Google have a strategic partnership focused on OpenOffice.org applications that includes joint marketing and development efforts. In the near-term, Google Docs are the online collaborative productivity suite, while OpenOffice.org resides on the desktop.

Developer: OpenOffice.org, with support from Sun Microsystems.

4. Symark Software’s Access Control and Identity Management products

What it does: Helps secure your Linux environment through root access protection, user management, and administrative account management.

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How it will help you: One of the allures of Linux is that it is not nearly as riddled with security flaws as Windows. Many mistakenly believe, though, that Linux is trouble-free. Not so. In fact, in one area – root access risks – Vista is superior to Linux. While hackers will never target Linux as fervently as they do Microsoft products, this doesn’t mean Linux users are free from risk.

In an enterprise setting, the biggest security risk comes from insiders. According to the most recent CSI/FBI survey, 52% of respondents said that they experienced security breaches. Of those experiencing a breach, a whopping 68% believed that the attacks came from within the organization. An IBM study found that 70% of businesses believe that insider attacks are more of a threat than those from traditional hackers.

Without controls in place, nearly anyone can gain root access to Linux accounts, which not only creates a serious security risk but also threatens your compliance with industry regulations. The most dangerous accounts are those given to your IT staff, giving them so-called “super-user” status – meaning they can access just about any organizational information they want.

While IT needs to be able to access various user accounts in order to do their job, they still need to be controlled and audited. This is where tools like those from Symark Software come in.

Symark’s PowerBroker gives system administrators an automated way to delegate administrative privileges and authorization without disclosing the root password and to grant selective access to UNIX and Linux-based corporate resources.

PowerPassword gives administrators a tool for securely deploying and managing user accounts, passwords, and login policies across heterogeneous UNIX/Linux environments, while keeping a centralized audit trail.

Finally, PowerKeeper automates the management of administrative account passwords. Administrator passwords are the most risk-oriented ones in any organization, yet they are often the ones subject to the least control. PowerKeeper provides a secure release mechanism for administrator passwords and automatically changes the password on the managed system based on parameters and policies set by the organization. PowerKeeper eliminates the problem of users who know passwords prior to being put under control.

Obstacles to Adoption: The most obvious obstacle to adoption is awareness. Too many people believe that you can get away with security on the cheap with Linux (or Mac for that matter) because most attacks focus on Microsoft products. While the risk related to outside threats is certainly less for Linux environments, it’s not zero, and risks from insiders are just as bad, if not worse, than with Windows systems.

Symark will need to work to raise awareness and overcome complacency. One force working in its favor is compliance. Many industry regulations mandate that controls be in place to protect sensitive information and that audit trails are kept.

Symark also faces competition from other security vendors, such as Fortefi and Centrify. If Linux ever does gain real market penetration on enterprise desktops, expect the incumbents to rush in here as well.

Developer: Symark Software, in Agoura Hills, CA.

Management Team: Bob Farber, COO, was formerly the manager of technical support operations for Candle Corporation. John Kendrick, CFO, was previously CFO of Broadcast Media Group. Anita Rose, SVP of sales, formerly held executive positions at Intersecting Concepts and Executive Software.

Dick DeVillers, VP of technology, spent over ten years in management positions at CA. Ellen Libenson, VP of product marketing, was previously VP of marketing at Thinque Systems.

5. Acronis’ True Image Family

What it does: Provides enterprise-class backup and recovery for Linux servers, workstations, and desktops.

How it will help you: We’ve all heard this one before: back up your data, often. Yet, it’s like eating your vegetables. Not everyone does it as often as they should, even if they know it’s good for them.

In the enterprise setting, you can’t trust backups to good intentions. Automated backup and disaster recovery are a must, and any worthwhile enterprise-class solution must have the ability to create compact, ready-to-deploy images.

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Acronis True Image 9.1 Workstation provides bare-metal restore capabilities for both workstations and desktops. System administrators can create exact images of hard drives, allowing complete restores with all of the necessary software and drivers already installed.

If Linux hopes to compete in the corporate desktop market, solutions for quickly deploying new machines in a distributed environment are a must. Acronis Snap Deploy 2.0 meets this need, enabling enterprise users to create a standard configuration for a new PC or server that can be can then be quickly deployed.

What’s more immediately relevant for most organizations, though, is Arcronis True Image 9.1 for Linux Server, since many mission-critical servers are already running Linux. True Image Server for Linux creates exact server disk images that include OSes, applications and configurations, while also backing up mission-critical databases.

After any crash, it allows users to perform a full system restore, a bare-metal restore or just a restore of individual files and folders, depending on the severity of the crash. True Image Server for Linux creates a server disk backup image without interrupting server operations.

Upgrades in the more recent versions of its products include support for virtualization and transportable images. Acronis also offers Windows versions of its products, as well as products geared for the consumer market.

Obstacles to Adoption: First off, Acronis’ real market is still Windows. When it comes to Linux, their focus has been on the server market, since there really isn’t much of a corporate Linux desktop market yet.

That said, the market leader for Windows-based imaging and backup products is Symantec with its Norton Ghost. Response to Symantec’s version of Ghost that supports Linux, though, has been less than stellar, providing a potential opportunity for Acronis.

Partimage, an open-source imaging utility, is fine for home users, but most corporate users want more bells and whistles. Other alternatives include Zmanda’s Amanda, Storix Backup Administrator, and Acreia’s backup solutions. SOHO and mid-tier users may also consider products from Yosemite.

Developer: Acronis, in Burlington, MA.

Management Team: Walter Scott, CEO, previously served as the CEO of Imceda Software. Ed Harnish, VP of marketing, and Ellan Murphy, VP of sales, were also formerly with Imceda. Max Tsypliaev, co-founder and chairman.

6. Userful’s Desktop Multiplier

What it does: Provides a solution for thin-client computing based on Linux, supporting up to ten distinct desktops (and users) from one machine.

How it will help you: According to Userful, modern PCs spend most of the day idle. Userful proposes to take this under-utilized capacity and leverage it. Connect extra monitors, keyboards, and mice, and Userful’s software enables a single Linux PC to serve ten users at once.

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Before you run through a checklist of why this won’t work for your organization, realize that Userful isn’t focusing on the typical office setting. Instead, Userful envisions Desktop Multiplier being used for public computing. Think of information kiosks, shared terminals at Internet cafes (which are still popular overseas), public terminals at a hospital nursing stations, or computer labs in schools. In each case, processing needs are minimal and user data isn’t stored locally. Essentially, the PCs serve as a conduit between the user and either the Internet or server-based applications – a perfect situation for streamlined computing.

For a more typical office setting, Desktop Multiplier could be used to provide guest access terminals or for shared Internet or application access in conference rooms.

Obstacles to Adoption: Part of why the thin-client model of computing has gone out of favor is cost. As PC prices continue to erode, how attractive will the cost savings from Userful be? Granted, administration is easier, but is that enough of a draw?

At the same time, the added horsepower on mobile devices makes them de facto mini-computers. Why not just let people access the information on your public kiosk via their mobile phones? Granted, this model has yet to gain traction, but it promises an even greater cost savings in settings where public terminals exist. One wireless server could serve innumerable users.

Developer: Userful, in Calgary, AB.

Management Team: Timothy Griffin, founder, president and CEO, previously conducted research into laptop and input device design. Daniel Griffin, VP of library services, formerly led the project to integrate LexisNexis’ print and electronic delivery departments and systems. Junsang Lee, director of IT solutions and solutions architect, previously held various positions at IBM-Korea, including senior IT architect, senior software account manager and senior sales specialist.

7. Xandros’ Desktop Management Server

What it does: Automates the administration of desktops, giving IT a simple, consistent method for deploying, upgrading, monitoring, and removing OSes and applications.

How it will help you: Xandros already has a reputation for delivering corporate-focused Linux distributions. Able to run on just about any Intel or AMD processor, the distribution looks and acts a heck of a lot like Windows XP – meaning you are spared the training headaches that come with other Linux distros.

Lately, Xandros has also been working hard to position itself as an alternative to a Vista upgrade. Recent versions come bundled with CrossOver Linux, so you can run Windows applications, and Scalix, so you have messaging, calendar, and collaboration ready to go right from the start. For cost-conscious users who don’t want to upgrade the hardware to run the corresponding Vista upgrade, Xandros may look appealing.

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That’s all well and good, but if Linux hopes to become a desktop alternative to Microsoft, there’s a lot more than an OS to consider. Just as security, automatic backups and disaster recovery are musts in the enterprise, so is centralized administration. If each user must administer, upgrade, and manage his or her own desktop, or if IT must do this manually, most enterprise customers will stick with Microsoft.

With the release of Desktop Management Server (xDMS), Xandros tackles this problem. System administrators can use xDMS to automatically deploy Xandros OSes throughout the organization. xDMS includes an intuitive GUI that shields users from command-line headaches.

xDMS also gives administrators control over desktop environments, allowing them to add, update, and remove applications from any PC on the network, while also giving them the ability to monitor applications and enforce corporate policies.

Obstacles to Adoption: Microsoft, Microsoft, Microsoft. Before worrying too much about desktop management, Linux in general and Xandros in particular have to gain some traction as an enterprise desktop option first.

There are also other Linux-based desktop management products out there, including Novell’s ZENworks Desktop Management and Shaolin Microsystems' ShaoLin Aptus. And, of course, if Linux does make headway in the enterprise, traditional vendors of administration software, such as IBM and CA, will certainly target this sector.

Developer: Xandros, in New York, NY.

Management Team: Andreas Typaldos, CEO; Wm. Jay Roseman, VP and co-founder; Spencer Hayman, VP and CFO; Jeffrey C. Kuligowski, SVP of sales; Ming Poon, VP of software development; Todd Kanfer, VP of marketing.

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