Sun's JDS gets mostly thumbs up

The Sun Java Desktop System isn't built from the ground up with Java, as you might expect, but is another Linux distribution based heavily on Novell Inc.'s SuSE Linux Desktop 1.0.

Even so, it may be the smoothest desktop-oriented version of Linux around. Administrators who have shied away from enterprise Linux might want to take a look at JDS.

Desktop Linux has always been a dicey proposition for organizations that rely on more than Microsoft Windows applications. Linux has the stability and flexibility of Unix, but also its share of installation and maintenance head-aches, such as having to check library dependencies and set user permissions.

As a lower-cost alternative to Microsoft Windows XP for basic office tasks, JDS succeeds. Sun'and the open-source community'did an adequate job of smoothing out the rougher edges. JDS performs almost as well as Windows at many basic tasks, and even excels at a few.

Mature open-source

I installed JDS on a generic computer with 256M of RAM and an Athlon XP 1700+ processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. Only an old monitor stumped the JDS installer, which set the resolution at 800 by 640 pixels and forced me to reset by hand.

JDS uses mature versions of open-source software'for instance, the road-hardened 2.4.19 version of the Linux kernel instead of the latest one. All the applications worked as promised.

The Evolution e-mail and calendar client closely resembles Microsoft's Outlook client. Novell offers a separate plug-in that lets Evolution work with Microsoft Exchange Server.

Version 7 of StarOffice, Sun's clone of Microsoft Office, is based on the open-source OpenOffice and has a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation program similar to Microsoft PowerPoint.

Earlier versions of OpenOffice I've tried were sluggish even on state-of-the-art hardware. This version is considerably sprightlier, though not as fast as Microsoft Office on similar hardware.
The word processor recognized Microsoft Word documents and could embed spreadsheet cells and other objects. It did not, however, recognize Word macros.

Sun still needs to eliminate at least one Linux hassle: copying and pasting between applications. With JDS, you highlight the text you want to copy, then press the center mouse button to paste. This works well unless you close an application from which you've copied text before pasting it elsewhere. JDS also mimics Windows' Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V method of cutting and pasting, though it doesn't work in all applications.

As for valuable JDS features not found in Microsoft software, the Mozilla browser can open multiple pages within one window. Called tabbed browsing, this feature quickly becomes addictive in heavy Web use.

Also, the Gnome desktop environment can maintain multiple work spaces. You switch between them by clicking on a graphical grid on the toolbar. This cuts down on desktop clutter considerably.

JDS excels at networking. It automatically found and logged on to a Windows network, and its open-source Samba sharing software could exchange files with PCs running Windows. Configuring Samba in the past has been quite a chore, so the fact that it was up and running after installation was nothing short of wonderful.

Like any other Linux distribution, JDS' five CDs held lots of extra applications, some of which worked better than others. Thankfully, most of them remained behind on the disks after a routine installation. The standalone dictionary failed to check any of the words I gave it, but a Java tool for building outlines worked nicely. Also left on the disk were command-line Unix tools such as the Pine editor. That's good, considering their potential for hacker misuse.

Although Linux isn't generally very good at peripheral support, JDS did recognize a variety of devices. The digital photo editor easily uploaded pictures from an old D-360L Olympus digital camera, which Windows XP does not recognize. The OS also automatically recognized a USB Lexar portable flash drive.

With JDS, Sun brings to the table at least the promise of enterprise-level support and coherent management in a fully Linux environment. That's an opportunity systems administrators might want to consider.

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