Open source desktop basics: Risk-free ways to get started, part 2

Don't get alarmed, but I'm now going to suggest that you put Linux on your business desktop. I'm even going to say that this is a no-risk exercise.

I could suggest that you reformat your PC, erasing Windows and everything else in the process, and install Linux. "Uh-huh. I don't think so", I hear you say. Well, relax. You won't have to do that. This was going to be risk-free, remember?

It's easy to take Linux for a test drive. Some Linux versions have been tailored to run from a CD. You just put the CD into the drive, reboot your machine, and Linux will be up and running. No installation is required; nothing will have to be written to your hard disk. When you're done, take out the CD and reboot your PC again, and you're back in Windows.

Knoppix is the most popular and, arguably, the most impressive live-CD version of Linux. Knoppix can be downloaded from the Knoppix site. You will have to burn the ISO image to a CD, so see your CD-burner software manual for details.

Put the CD into your drive, and reboot your computer. In most cases, Knoppix will run fine with all the default settings (just hit when prompted); but if you have some oddball hardware in your computer you may have to hit F2 and find the option to start Knoppix in a mode that supports your hardware.

More from Frank van Wensveen:

Open source desktop basics: Risk-free ways to get started, part 1

Why and when open source products best Microsoft, part 1

Why and when open source products best Microsoft, part 2

Then, if all goes well -- we are dealing with computers here, after all -- the Knoppix desktop will appear. Once again, you'll see some cosmetic differences between the Knoppix and Windows GUIs. Don't worry. The difference is in the details only. You will find menus with ready-to-run applications that can do just about everything you've ever wanted to do with your computer; from DVD players to Internet access to office suites, from CD burning to databases to e-mail.

Browse through Knoppix. The controls will probably feel a bit funny right at the start, but you'll get used to that soon enough. You may also have to get used to the fact that Knoppix appears to consist of a large collection of programs, rather than of one huge chunk of software. This modular approach is in fact one of Linux' strong points. Many Windows problems find their origin in Windows' monolithic design. Linux is better structured and has a better separation between the various components that make up the entire system.

Knoppix will probably seem to run a little slow. That's only because it's running from a CD and not from your hard disk, which slows things down considerably. Also, when using Knoppix, you can't write anything to a CD, so if you do any work with it, you can't save it in the usual manner. For a test drive, that won't matter very much. You will be able to access your data on your computer's Windows partition, though.

There are Windows emulators for Linux. The most advanced one at the moment is called Wine, which is included with Knoppix. Emulators' capabilities are limited, however, and not all Windows applications are supported.

If you want to explore other Linux distributions in a no-risk way, there are many other live-CD Linux versions. You can find them by Googling for linux live-cd.

The best of both worlds with Virtual Machines

If you're impressed with the rich capabilities of Knoppix, you may want to give Linux a good second look. A live-CD is fine for a test drive, but it's a bit of a pain to reboot your PC all the time, and it's difficult to save your work or to install new applications.

In an ideal world, you'd run Linux from your computer's hard disk, as it was intended to be. But your hard disk contains Windows, which you do not want to lose at this time. Now what?

The good news is that you can have your cake and eat it. The bad news is, unlike Knoppix, this option is not free.

A good way to run Linux and Windows at the same time is to use a Virtual Machine (VM). There are currently two commercial software products that do this: VMware and, ironically, Microsoft's Virtual PC. I know of no good VM software that's available in Open Source at the moment.

I've found VMware and Virtual PC helpfu, as they'll let you do much more than just play with Linux. Of the two, I've found VMware to be the better one by far, but both will do the job.

Essentially, a VM will let you run different operating systems on the same computer. It runs on the parent operating system (in this case, Windows) as an application, but "on the inside" each VM presents its own set of virtual hardware (e.g., RAM, CPU, disk space, network interfaces, etc.) to the software that runs in it. So, when you run Linux inside a Virtual Machine, it will be fooled into believing that it's got an entire computer to itself. It won't be aware of Windows; the VM shields it completely from the host operating system.

I've had good experiences with using VMware Workstation to run Linux in a Windows environment. Granted, this will slow things down because your computer has to do two things at the same time. Also, you will need a fair amount of memory to accommodate both operating systems at the same time. But in return for these investments you get the best of both worlds. And it gets better! Read on.

Virtual Machines turned around

Let's say that you've been using Linux in a VMware environment, and you've grown to like it, use it often and feel confident with it. That's when the Virtual Machine will start to feel a bit cramped. Even so, you are not ready to abandon Windows. What should you do?

Fortunately, VMware goes both ways. You can run Linux on a Windows host environment, but you can also run Windows on a Linux host environment. It goes like this: you install Linux on a computer, going the full route of backing up all important data, formatting the hard disk, sitting through a few installation CDs, and rebooting the computer into its new operating system (OS). Then you install the Linux version of VMware, and inside the Virtual Machine you then run Windows and the applications that you need. You still have the best of both worlds, but now Linux is the primary OS, and Windows serves as a fallback whenever you need it.

The latest goodie from VMware is called VMware Payer. In a nutshell, it will allow you to "wrap" a Windows application in a Virtual Machine, and Player will then run it on Linux. VMware Player is free, so you won't need a separate VMware user license for each machine. You can install VMware on a single computer and distribute VM environments with your legacy Windows applications to other computers that use Player.

Summing up

As promised, I've stuck to the basics in this open source software primer. You can use the tips I've offered to get your users started with OSS. That could knock down the resistance that many of them feel to letting go of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft applications. I don't believe that an OSS newbie can go wrong by trying out OpenOffice 2.0, Firefox, Knoppix and emulators.

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