2006: The year of desktop Linux?

With a Windows Vista upgrade looming, agencies may want to see which Linux flavors are up to the task.

Dell Inc. sells a lot of computers. Some even have Linux on them. But it won't do for its Linux users what it does for its Microsoft Windows customers'fully support them across a complete line of Dell PCs. That's because, according to Michael Dell himself, there are too many flavors of Linux out there. Which should the company support? If it gets behind Ubuntu, for instance, rabid Xandros fans might be up in arms.

The law of unintended (or maybe intended?) consequences applies in spades to open-source operating systems. Open source drives innovation and choice, but too much choice drives enterprises back into the arms of what they know best'namely Windows.

But that could be changing. For one thing, if ever there was a time for agencies to think about the operating system they deploy on their client systems, it's now. That's because Windows Vista is on the horizon, complete with steep hardware requirements and confusing upgrade pricing. So chances are you have an OS upgrade in your near-term plans. The question is, which OS will it be?

In addition, enterprise-class desktop Linux distributions are here. We're not talking about free, downloadable OSes anymore. These are tightly integrated packages with high-end security features, centrally managed and backed by reputable vendors such as Novell and Red Hat. Some are ready for enterprise deployment; some not so much.

The GCN Lab pulled together the latest versions of several desktop Linux distributions to determine not only which was our favorite, but also to gauge what might be required to integrate these systems into an existing environment. We wanted to know how easy these OSes were to set up and configure for top security; whether they'd play nicely with existing peripherals; and how they'd communicate with Windows networks.

As has been the case for years now, moving to Linux is not always a smooth transition. Still, certain distributions'Red Hat, Novell SUSE and Xandros'have developed into true Windows alternatives. Not coincidentally, they're also Linux distributions you pay for in order to gain enterprise-class functionality and support.

It's too early to say whether one of these is better then Windows Vista, which admittedly shows great promise. But we think it's exciting that today agencies can look at a handful of desktop operating systems and judge them based on their needs and infrastructures.

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