Article

Perceptions: Is Linux suitable for business desktops?

John H Terpstra, CEO, PrimaStasys Inc.

Beyond the survey: IT pros sound off on Linux desktops
By John H. Terpstra

Since the presentation and publication of the article, Perceptions: Is Linux suitable for business desktops?, I have received substantial feedback. Most of this feedback comes from IT pros who are not, perhaps, as strongly biased toward Linux or Windows as those in my poll. Publishing this feedback could address an issue brought up by readers: their perception of bias in the article.(Also, at the writer's request, we formatted the original article to make it clear when he was stating his own opinions. - J.S.)

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Editor's note: John H. Terpstra, SearchEnterpriseLinux.com advisor and Samba Team co-founder, interviewed 15 pro-Linux and 15-pro-Microsoft IT professionals about the viability of using Linux for business desktops. His findings were first published on DesktopLinux.com. After receiving feedback on that article, Terpstra wrote a sidebar to the article, citing remarks from readers' e-mails and his own revelations. He submitted the updated article to SearchEnterpriseLinux.com. Those who have already read the article can go straight to the sidebar. - Jan Stafford, Site Editor

Reality often interrupts an otherwise perfect impression of life. This column started out as a simple exercise to collect background information for a presentation at a conference. The design and intent were simple enough, but my findings came as a rather rude challenge to return to present consciousness.

My presentation was titled, "10 Reasons you CAN use Linux on the business desktop." Surely, this was an easy subject to address. Anyone who is familiar with Linux could complete a simple argument to prove the point. Think about it, Linux is a truly viable alternative tool compared with Microsoft (MS) Windows. After all, what is Windows other than just an operating system platform? Add in a few office automation tools, a Web browser, an e-mail client, and bingo! Proof positive, Linux can replace Windows. Right? Simple isn't it?

Wait! I hear someone say: "What about this and that?" So to put the critics to bed, I collected a little information from the Internet. Surely, I reasoned, one could expect to find a solid discussion somewhere that analyzes user needs and wants, one that examines buyer behavior and that recognizes the tasks people use their computers for.

So, Google to the rescue. You know how it goes. If I ask the right questions, Google will yield a rich reward of simple proof. Not this time though: A few searches yielded the first set of confusing findings. Just try this yourself. Look for "Reasons for Linux" or "Windows better than Linux" and follow a few links around. What I found almost immediately were two articles that gave the same reasons for and against Linux on the desktop. By the way, the same authors didn't write them, and someone wasn't playing a prank on us all. Searching further, I only found more evidence of a similar and conflicting nature. From a total of more than 23,000 hits, I filtered out 22 key articles that I selectively decided to use as my "proof material."

After that, I wanted first-person commentary. I know people who have VERY strong opinions regarding Linux and Windows. I reviewed my list of well opinionated victims, intending to collect their opinions. I chose two groups of 15 people, people for and against Linux. Each candidate is technically competent, capable of making rational and comprehensible deductions involving information technology issues.

In my first-person survey, I was sure I would find some positive facts to support the use of Linux, as well as some really solid road-blocks to its use. Once I got this hard evidence, I would show everyone how journalists get it wrong. I would also isolate factors that would help someone to improve Linux and to make it a more viable desktop platform.

Market poll methodology

I rang each individual on my list. Each call took around 20 minutes. The questions asked:

  • Please give five top reasons why you CAN use Linux on the desktop
  • Please give five top reasons why you CAN NOT use Linux on the desktop
  • If you had to affect a significant reduction in IT expenditure, what would you change?

So as to not to influence the feedback I only listened and took notes. Thankfully, most answers were brief and to the point. One or two went on a little longer, but all came to a clear conclusion.

I classified the responses by looking for common key words or trigger issues. To do justice one has to retain each response within the context in which the answer was given. So, after all responses had been noted down, I asked a few questions to get a better handle on what motivated points that seemed out of balance.

Findings

The 300 responses could be classified into around 10 key issues: cost, reputation, applications, security, hardware support, software support, familiarity, ease of installation, trust, performance.

What follows is a review of key feedback items that demonstrates each issue. It was disappointing that several answers related to Linux as a server platform, not as a desktop tool. What was even more significant is that not one person offered a reply to the third question. This interview was the perfect vehicle to reinforce the message that Linux is the best means of reducing the cost of ownership of an IT infrastructure. Thus, that message is not to be!

Cost

Pro-Linux perceptions included the following:

  • The economic environment is tough and IT budgets are being cut
  • Linux is free (10 mentions)
  • Freedom from operating system license fees (server)
  • No client access license fees (also called the Microsoft Tax by two respondents) (fees levied to access servers)
  • The cost of acquisition of a complete Linux based solution (server) is much lower than an equivalent Microsoft Windows solution.
  • The cost of Linux support is much lower than a Microsoft Windows (NT4 / 2000) based solution.
  • Windows requires on-site support staff.
  • There are many free office automation solution choices (12 mentions)
  • OpenOffice / StarOffice can comfortably replace MS Office
    WordPerfect 8 for Linux can replace MS Office
  • Microsoft has increased the licensing costs for MS Windows, they will do it again! (2 mentions)
  • The Linux development environment is free and very powerful (4 mentions)
  • All needed business applications are available for Linux
  • Corel PhotoDraw for Linux is free (1 mention)
  • If a user MUST use a Windows application it can be run on Linux:
  • Using the WINE application (2 mentions) Using Win4Lin (3 mentions) Using VMWare (4 mentions)

After reviewing these remarks, I offer this comment: Corel PhotoDraw appears to be a discontinued commercial product and it is not free. Also, it seems obvious to me that with Win4Lin and VMWare one has to pay for this software as well as pay for the MS Windows license -- so why not just run MS Windows on the user's PC? Why does this fact escape the Pro-Linux opinions?

Pro-Windows perceptions about cost included:

  • A Microsoft-funded IDC report that claims that the Linux TCO is 13% higher than an equivalent MS Windows solution (3 mentions)
  • Linux requires on-site techies to keep systems running (2 mentions)
  • Linux requires on-site development staff or contractors to fix serious bugs and to apply kernel patches (3 mentions)
  • Ultimately Linux using sites need to out-source support since a company can not rely on internal staff to remain current on all issues
  • PowerPoint is the best presentation tool (everyone uses it) (10 mentions)
  • There are no open source alternatives to MS Access
  • Visual Studio is much better than any open source IDE (2 mentions)
  • Linux IDE tools are back in the Dark Ages! (1 mention)
  • Use of a CRM application that requires MS SQL, so it is cheaper to have just one platform.
  • Linux users do not know how to use dial-up networking
  • Windows networks cannot be browsed from Linux workstations
  • Linux is immature -- will cause high costs in the long run
  • There are no financial applications for Linux (MYOB and Quicken were mentioned:
  • PS: The issue raised was the ability to export data to users of these two applications.
Here's my comment on these quotes: The is a native Linux/Unix tool that can replace MS Access. It is called pgaccess and is a front end to the Postgresql SQL server. Pgaccess has an interface to SQL data tables, forms, reports, views, schema manipulation, stored procedures and scripts, as well as user management capabilities. It is possible to build a whole application in pgaccess, just as can be done with MS Access. There are other open source front-end tools that allow replacement of MS Access as well as MS SQL server. Also, no respondents were aware that there is an ODBC driver for Postgresql and MySQL that will allow MS Access and MS Excel to use an open source SQL back-end system. It seems that Linux companies have NOT managed to get this message across at all. Also, not one respondent had seen the libsmbclient library capabilities from KDE konqueror that allows SMB network browsing.

In conclusion, both sides of the opinion gap believe that their preferred platform costs less to maintain none offered any concrete proof.

Which OS has a better reputation?

Pro-Linux perceptions include:

  • Linux is the fastest growing OS platform
  • Linux is COOL!
  • MS Windows users are "stupid"
  • Linux is a more productive platform
  • MS Windows is NOT a single platform -- 9x/Me/XP Home, NT/2000/.XP Pro are all different platforms
  • Microsoft Service Packs punch further holes in the single platform proposition
    - Try using a Windows 95 Video driver under Windows 2000!
  • Applications work faster and more smoothly than MS Windows applications
  • Linux applications are better for the job
    The Linux desktop offers more choices
  • Linux is more productive
  • applications works faster and smoother
    Linux applications and tools are better for the job
    Linux desktop has more choices
    In my opinion, the comment abusing Windows users is a foolish jab that alienates and does nothing to bridge the credibility gap!

    Pro-Windows perceptions included:

    • MS Windows is the MOST-used OS Platform
    • ISPs do not support Linux (PacBell mentioned directly)
    • Linux users are "know-it-alls" (softened form of real term used)
    • Every Linux distribution is it's own OS -- poor backwards compatibility between updates
    • OpenOffice loses MS Word document formatting
    • Windows applications allow the user to be more task focused than Linux applications
    • No need to do software programming to make it work (1 mention)
      Windows applications are the best for the job
      MS Windows has one totally consistent interface
    My comment on these answers: I flew seated next to the CEO of an ISP who told me his whole company runs on Linux, that his company NEVER had a problem with a Linux user and that over 95% of support staff time is taken up helping MS Windows users to do things that are very simple to do! He mentioned that MS Dial-up networking issues were the singularly most frequent center of attention because Windows users tamper with their settings "all the time."

    Conclusion: Clearly, the anti-Linux sentiment is reflective of pro-Linux opinions that alienated the pro-Windows people. Nobody likes to be told that they have made the "wrong" decision.

    Applications

    Pro-Linux perceptions included:

    • The Linux Graphical Interface is just as easy to use as Windows
    • Linux uses Industry Standards compliant protocols
    • Industry Standard File formats also
    • We can never be certain which Microsoft patches need to be installed:
    • Too many to choose from
      - Don't trust MS patches because of many instances of downtime caused by faulty patches
    • Linux offers great Interoperability

    Pro-Windows perceptions:

    • There are very few Linux applications
    • We can NOT do without MS Outlook Client
      You can NOT buy MS Exchange Server for Linux
      Linux is NOT compatible with the Internet Explorer 6 standard
      Can't buy a decent live email backup client for Linux like the one we bought for Outlook
      There is NO PC Anywhere for Linux (and that is our help-desk and administration standard)
    • Linux printing "stinks"
    • Linux Media Players "stink"
    • Interoperability will NEVER happen!

    In my opinion, Ximian Evolution looks and works just like MS Outlook but no pro-Windows respondent knew of this tool. Pro-Windows respondents saw MS Exchange as synonymous with Internet email -- Microsoft have done a good job with their messaging here! I also asked the pro-IE6 respondent how compatible his IE5.5 and IE5 systems were with IE6 and he could NOT see the point of my question. When I mentioned industry standards compliance he replied that I should just accept the fact that what "everyone uses is the standard."

    Conclusion: Opinions share no common ground. Both sides come from a "my-world-is-best" perspective and solve the same task problem a different way.

    Security

    Here are the pro-Linux perceptions about security:

    • There is no such thing as a Linux virus, all viruses are just programs!
    • Linux has no obscure protocols/services -- makes it easier to "lock down"
    • Linux us not vulnerable to WORMS
    • The IRC Trojan IIS Worm just can not happen with Linux
      The Slammer worm killed many networks in January because MS SQL is too hard to secure
    • Windows security breaches are on the increase
    • Microsoft shipped a faulty NT4 patch that took my network down in December 2002 -- MS had to withdraw this patch!

    Now, let's look at the pro-Windows perceptions:

    • Linux is NOT secure, after all it is made by backyard hackers!
    • No-one is responsible for Linux integrity -- Who do you sue if Linux fails?
    • Windows has a single sign-on facility that is much more secure than anything Linux has to offer
    • There are lots of reputable third-party companies that produce antivirus software.
    • Microsoft have been focusing on solving the security issues and will release a hardened Windows soon
    • 1 year in the making and no small task
      There is NO Linux equivalent!

    My conclusion: respondents answered from their own experiences and with their own specific biases.

    Hardware support

    The pro-Linux perceptions about hardware support are as follows:

    • Linux has comprehensive support for:
    • Video Controllers
      USB (Plug and Play)
      Modems
      Mice
      Monitors and Everything
    • HP, Lexmark and Epson offer great Linux printing solutions

    The pro-Windows perceptions on hardware support included:

    • Linux does NOT support
    • GDI Printers
      Winmodems
      Video Cards
      PCMCIA cards

    The conclusion to be drawn from these comments is that Linux does NOT work well with devices that are more or less specific to MS Windows (surprise!), and that means that the companies that produce them are going to miss out on purchase decisions made by the growing number of pro-Linux buyers. But both platforms clearly offer a usable choice of alternatives.

    Software support

    Pro-Linux perceptions on software support included:

    • Community help is fast and free
    • One can use VNC to support BOTH Linux and MS Windows network clients
    • Linux software is easier to keep up to date
    • Also easier to deploy
      Does not need as much support as MS Windows
    • Linux has the best remote administration tools (like rsh, ssh, webmin)
    • With Linux it is easier to "image" hard disks for replicated deployment
    • MS Windows is too complicated to manage / maintain

    Pro-Windows perceptions on software support were as follows:

    • Many vendors do NOT support Linux
    • Vendors can not make any money from Linux users
      Some Linux vendors do NOT support Linux
      Can't buy help desk support contract for Linux
    • We can not find anyone who knows how to do things that are simple in Windows
    • There are not unified Linux network management tools: nothing like Microsoft MMC
    • Windows has the more mature rapid deployment tools (e.g.: Norton Ghost)
    • Linux is way TOO complicated

    Based on these comments, I came to these conclusions: We are still suffering a knowledge gap. Neither side has come to grips with the other's perspective and believes their own stories regardless of reality. Clearly, Linux support is NOT as comforting to all corporate administrators as advocates might believe. Equally, The pro-Windows respondents are unwilling to weight the real cost of the liabilities of their current infrastructure solutions -- this leads to an unwillingness to seriously consider alternatives.

    One respondent severely criticized Microsoft for problems some users experienced with Internet Explorer, but then that person excused this as a "necessary side effect" of a maturing technology. At the same time, that respondent put aside all consideration that Linux might be going through the same maturation process.

    Familiarity

    Pro-Linux perceptions included:

    • The Linux Desktop is just like the Microsoft Windows desktop
    • OpenOffice is very familiar to users of MS Office
    • Linux is easier to deploy than MS Windows

    Comment: The respondent who answered that Linux was easier to deploy than MS Windows had never deployed MS Windows! Rather an uninformed opinion! Pro-Windows perceptions were as follows:

    • Familiarity is Microsoft's key scorecard item!
    • Linux is daunting to new users
    • Windows is more predictable than Linux is
    • Windows XP Pro is easier to deploy (especially for thousands of desktop installations)

    I discovered that the "Linux is daunting" comment came from an administrator who had NOT used Linux in over two years. The last comment came from a respondent who had tried to automate the roll-out of Red Hat Linux, but complained that "kick-start" preparations for his 3,000-plus workstations would be too time consuming. He claimed that a single auto-install profile for MS Windows XP Professional rollout could meet the needs of ALL workstations and that he was more familiar with rolling out MS Windows than Linux.

    My conclusion is that this is evidence of a knowledge gap. I must add that the criticism of difficulty of Linux deployment seems like an informed comment.

    Ease of installation

    Pro-Linux perceptions included:

    • Linux GUI installers are easier to use than MS Windows XP's installation process
    • Linux Mass roll-out is easier (requires fewer staff) and is less costly than Windows XP
    • Linux installation is a once only affair

    Here are the pro-Windows perceptions:

    • Linux means I have to get rid of all current software and deploy all new stuff
    • means I can not use my existing MS Windows application servers
    • Nearly all new machines come pre-installed with Windows
    • so why throw it away?
      why go through the pain of installing something else?
    • Everyone (users) know how to install MS Windows software, with Linux I'd need an army to install applications

    We can conclude from these comments that respondents from both sides admitted to not liking to deal with installation, no matter how easy it might seem. While there is a knowledge gap here, responses ring of "I prefer what I know best."

    Trust

    Pro-Linux perceptions included:

    • Linux is based on the same open source software that powers the Internet
    • I know Linux can be trusted
    • Anyone who buys Windows SHOULD get fired, Windows is not reliable, can't trust it!
    • I trust OpenOffice
    • Microsoft are too dominant
    • Open Source means:
    • No restrictions EVER!
      No Vendor 'lock-in'

    These pro-Windows perceptions were offered:

    • I have NO idea who to call for Linux help; we have no trained staff to support Linux
    • Linux desktop interfaces are confusing (KDE/Gnome/etc)
    • Don't feel comfortable with adding to menus
      Had past bad experience with setting up menus
    • I could get fired if Linux fails
    • I trust MS Office tools
    • No-one gets fired for buying Windows
    • Open source means:
    • No roadmap
      No future
      No money for resellers and that means no resellers

    One can concluded from these comments that there is a big gap in the area of trust, some of which is due to users' lack of exposure and lack of familiarity with Linux. Fear of exposure is the key factor here.

    Performance

    Pro-Linux perceptions included the following:

    • Apache is faster than IIS
    • Samba Rocks!
    • Squid is great! MS Proxy is a dog!
    • Postgresql/MySQL are better and faster
    • One can comfortably use older hardware with Linux (it is fast and lesser hardware)
    • Linux is Stable with good uptime
    • Word is big and clumsy
    Comment: The assertion regarding Postgresql and MySQL referred to use of an SQL server for web applications. The observations were NOT based on any actual comparison with MS SQL server. They thus represent a bias and not an evaluation!

    Here are the pro-Windows perceptions:

    • Samba has locking problems, it corrupts files and that is bad, bad, bad, bad!
    • MS SQL is the best, it is fast and easy to configure
    • Windows 2000 Server supports bigger files
    • Old hardware is unreliable and should not be used
    • Linux has NO answer for MS Terminal Server
    • Windows 2000 Server is NOT the faster file and print server, BUT it is 100% compatible!

    First of all, I found out in my follow-up questions that the comment pertaining to Samba was based on a Web search and NOT from experience. The fact is that locking problems could easily also be experienced with MS Windows. The respondent knew that but was of the opinion that if Samba could NOT solve problems that MS Windows has then there is no reason to use it.

    Secondly, the MS Terminal Server issue was raised by two respondents, neither of whom were aware of VNC, the Citrix ICA client for Linux, nor of other tools for MS Windows terminal server access from Linux systems. Additionally, MS Windows specialists knew only of Telnet and hated it! When I mentioned the ability to run remote X-sessions with Linux there was a stunned disbelief that this would work.

    The assertion that Windows 2000 Server supports larger files was based on the understanding that Linux has a 2GB file size limit. Windows 2000 supports files of up to 4Terabytes, Linux 2.4.x with the XFS or JFS file systems support much larger files than MS Windows 2000, but I am NOT aware of anyone who has hit either limits for MS Windows 2000 or for recent Linux implementations. Note that Samba is limited by the file system on which it runs.

    In conclusion, it seems obvious that fear and lack of familiarity are the key issues among MS Windows users. Excessive confidence among Linux users is just as much a barrier to convincing MS Windows devotees to at least become more familiar with Linux.

    Conclusions

    If Linux were the same as Windows then it would be Windows. Thankfully, it is not and thus there is a choice. Linux can substitute for Windows on the desktop, but it will not suit everyone. Linux does provide all the environmental tools that MS Windows users are familiar with, although they are not identical and they offer a different look and feel as well as different features. That, too, gives rise to choice that the user has the ability and freedom to exercise.

    Some say the Linux desktop is wonderful today, but others are of the opinion that it needs to mature further. There are some legitimate barriers due to the inability to run certain essential applications on Linux that are available for MS Windows. But there will always be someone who can find reason to object, no matter if the desktop platform is Linux or MS Windows.

    No matter which way you analyze the responses, Linux is a contender for the business desktop. Users have every right to choose their desktop of choice. For the large organization, the total cost of ownership will be a deciding issue, particularly in a tight economy.

    Finally, the key battle for Linux is NOT primarily a technology issue today, it has much more to do with knowledge and acceptance. In many ways, Linux is today where Microsoft Windows 3.0 was in 1989 -- on the radar set, and climbing.


    Read IT pros' responses to this article, and John H. Terpstra's commentary.

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