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Desktop Linux not yet making a dent in the enterprise

Although vendors such as Novell and Red Hat are starting to roll out products that help manage open source desktops, there are still some nagging issues that are keeping Linux from making headway with enterprises entrenched on the Windows client.

Special report:
Can Windows and Linux peacefully co-exist?

Second in a series.

Despite some high-profile customer wins with corporations and foreign governments, Linux still has a long way to go before it rivals Windows on the enterprise desktop.

The number of companies considering Linux remains relatively small. AT&T recently made headlines when it said it would begin testing Linux desktops, but an AT&T spokesman later

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pointed out that the telecommunications company -- which has 70,000 Windows desktops -- is also evaluating a newer version of Windows, as well Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh. AT&T is not considering a wholesale changeover from Windows to Linux at this time, the spokesman said.

IBM is also testing Linux on some of its desktops, although the company wouldn't elaborate on the extent to which it is installing the open source platform. Last year, a memo was leaked from IBM CIO Bob Greenberg that reportedly contained a challenge from CEO Sam Palmisano to move Big Blue to desktop Linux by 2005. IBM never confirmed the report.

Analyst numbers confirm the small number of Linux desktop deployments. Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm, said the installed base for desktop Linux in 2004 is only 1.5% of the overall desktop market. By 2008 that figure is only expected to grow to 3.4%.

Novell and Red Hat address manageability

There are a few factors that stand in the way of broader acceptance of desktop Linux. Enterprises need better management tools, but those are coming. Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc. have brought out enterprise desktop packages in the past year for Linux. And next month, Novell will introduce its next generation Linux-based desktop software, which will integrate products it acquired from both Ximian Inc. and SuSE Linux.

The product

I don't think there is any difference between managing Linux and Windows.

John Brunelle

IT manager

Smith & Nephew

will incorporate some of Zenworks and Red Carpet -- Novell's and Ximian's respective enterprise management software platforms. It could make a big difference for IT administrators who believe that Windows still has better management tools than Linux. "Novell understands the operational challenges of IT people," said Mike Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm.

And some of the perceived advantages of Windows -- such as bulletins and updates -- may not really be so unique after all. For example, both Windows and Red Hat desktops receive bulletins and updates. And SuSE Linux uses YaST, an open-source system tool, for updates and system administration.

For the most part, however, there are still far better tools for managing Windows than for Linux, said Fred Broussard, an analyst at International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass.-based consulting firm.

"Any IT department that thinks about moving to Linux to lower their costs will only save a portion of the money because you have to manage it," Broussard said.

Ubiquity and inertia benefits Windows

For some IT pros, the manageability issue isn't such big deal. For them, it's a question of inertia. Windows is in place and familiar to most.

"I don't think there is any difference between managing Linux and Windows," John Brunelle, an IT manager at Smith & Nephew, a London-based manufacturer of medical equipment.

There is some lack of standardization across Linux deployments, though. It has two possible graphical user interfaces from which to choose -- KDE and GNOME. But IT organizations can standardize on one of them when they undergo deployments, Brunelle said.

Still, moving to desktop Linux from Windows today seems like a lot of work for little benefit to many. "Changing over to Mozilla and a different e-mail client would require too much training on our part," said Daniel Venturini, an IT administrator at Maharam, a New York textile importer with about 300 Windows desktops.

And faced with that prospect, the path of least resistance is suddenly an attractive option.

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