While Linux is far from mainstream, recent changes to Microsoft's licensing program have driven many IT administrators to consider running Office applications on a platform other than Windows.
Though there are few options, some enterprises that have standardized on Linux get the job done using Windows emulation software. At NASA/Johnson Space Flight Center, applications like Outlook, Word and PowerPoint are just as important as the Linux that about 20 employees must use on their PCs to develop software for the space program.
For security reasons, employees cannot access e-mail using the POP mail server protocol; they can only use direct Exchange connections. Because of this, about 20 employees had to keep two computers on their desks -- one just for e-mail and another to do their work, said Patrick McCartney, GFE Flight Project Manager at NASA.
Although Linux has some tools that help users read Office documents, they were only about 90% effective, McCartney said. "There were always format difficulties."
The organization chose a Windows emulation tool made by CodeWeavers Inc., a St. Paul, Minn., company that focuses on serving corporate customers.
McCartney estimated that his department saved about $10,000 in a one-time cost when his employees gave up their second PCs.
CodeWeavers makes one of several Windows emulation tools that are aimed at commercial users, according to Chuck Bushong, a system integrator at Systuff.com. The leaders in this small but emerging field are Netraverse Inc., Austin, Texas, VMWare Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., and Codeweavers.
Each product is slightly different, and the customers' choices should depend on what they are trying to accomplish, Bushong said.
Netraverse, which makes Win4Lin, and VMWare both require a Windows license. CodeWeavers does not require a Windows license, but it is more limited in terms of what it can support.
Win4Lin tends to perform slightly faster than VMWare, but VMWare has a more complete emulation, which requires more processing power, Bushong said. The speed difference may not be a big deal for a user who is running a faster machine.
What these products do is create a virtual machine, so it appears to Windows as a computer running within a computer. They are helpful to enterprise customers who may want to migrate to Linux but have to support a particular vertical application, Bushong said.
The market for Windows emulation tools today is small, but given customer unhappiness over Microsoft's licensing policies, it could grow quickly. Today, these emulators really illuminate the power of the Office suite, said Charles King, research director at the Sageza Group, a Mountain View, Calif., consulting firm.
"It speaks to the fact that no matter what people think of Microsoft in the long term, and no matter what Sun [Microsystems] has said about StarOffice, there is not an Office productivity suite that matches [Microsoft] Office," King said.
The idea of getting out from under the thumb of Windows is attractive, King said. But what happens to the documents that are stored in Excel? "You are still under the thumb of Office."