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Desktop Linux looks for a Windows equalizer

Manageability features that are being created for Linux could be a catalyst for convincing enterprise customers that the Linux desktop is ready for the mainstream.

Desktop decisions:
A special report

First of three parts.

Manageability features that are being created for Linux could go a long way toward convincing enterprise customers that the Linux desktop is ready for the mainstream.

Open source vendors are promising better desktop management tools, which would represent a new dimension for non-Windows desktops, experts say. There is really nothing in the open source world today that is comparable to Microsoft's Active Directory group policy feature or Software Update Services (SUS).

"Today, you need expensive management frameworks, like IBM Tivoli or CA Unicenter," said Rob Helm, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. "But in any case, [IBM Tivoli, CA and others] is a major commitment, and not something you get out of a box."

Sun Microsystems Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., has already stated its plans to include some enterprise components in its desktop Linux product -- Java Desktop System, formerly code-named Mad Hatter -- that will take on roles similar to SUS and group policy.

In particular, there will be a patch administration and system-updating feature that will be managed from Sun's Control Station. There is also going to be a configuration manager -- called the Sun Java Desktop Configuration Manager -- that lets IT administrators, at the group or individual level, turn features on and off. These features are due in the first half of this year.

Sun is also developing some improvements in the area of Microsoft interoperability, as well as some enterprise-migration packages and additional end-user administration features. "Our goal is to make [Java Desktop System] easier to manage than Windows," said Peder Ulander, Sun's director of marketing for desktop products.

Competitor SuSE Linux AG already has basic patch management features, but customers will probably see bigger strides made in product manageability after Germany-based SuSE Linux is acquired by Novell Inc.

Novell owns the Red Carpet management technology as a result of its acquisition of Ximian Inc. in 2003. Novell also has Zenworks, a manageability platform, which will likely be optimized to work with the SuSE Linux desktop.

Few would argue that Linux can do just as good a job as Windows as a server operating system, but whether it can cut it as a general-purpose desktop is another matter.

Though open source vendors often concede that desktops based on Linux are not likely to challenge Windows anytime soon, the existence of an entrenched Windows installed base doesn't stop Sun or SuSE from campaigning hard to replace desktops that run Unix, and to hope to win over Windows users in the next few years.

"I would say that, in five years, [the desktop market] will be 50-50 Linux/Windows," said Holger Dyroff, general manager for SuSE Linux. "It will happen."

Today, though, experts say that even though the products for Linux are good, vendors have some catching up to do if they want to compare, if not compete, with the Windows desktop.

"What Sun has now is a nice, polished Linux desktop, but it's not terribly unique in its current form," said Gordon Haff, senior analyst at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H., consulting firm. "It's a low-cost desktop that has been nicely bundled, not that different from what you'd get if you pulled together a SuSE desktop."

For its part, Sun is hoping that its efforts will pay off faster overseas, particularly with governments that are mandating the use of open source. The company recently signed a deal with the Chinese government that could see the sale of anywhere from 100 million to 200 million desktops.

Domestically, Sun is hoping to pick up customers who are running a number of applications and platforms that Microsoft has recently dropped, notably Windows 98. "There may be hundreds of millions of desktops that need to be replaced at the end of this year," Sun's Ulander said.

For many big companies at which Windows desktops are pervasive, making a big change like switching to open source is disruptive because it requires conversions and training, and it could render applications incompatible.

"The expense of converting our applications would be too great for us," said Randy Robinson, vice president of IT at UnumProvident Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn. "But [open source] is something we must continue to watch and monitor. I'm not saying we would never choose that option."


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