Ready for a Windows-free desktop?

As alternative operating systems mature, one stands out as the best of the bunch

Earlier this month, Red Hat Inc. gathered government users, partners and the press together to launch its federal sales division. Though the emphasis was on enterprise server deployments, questions inevitably came around to Linux on the desktop.

One government user was interested in exploring desktop operating system alternatives but worried whether his agency would be able to use the programs its users have grown accustomed to. It's an important question and one not easily answered. But citing the maturity and functionality of open-source productivity applications such as OpenOffice, former General Services Administration CIO Don Heffernan, who was sitting on a panel at the Red Hat event, said Linux was 'this close' to being ready for widespread desktop deployment.

Like the vast majority of government users, we in the GCN Lab do our daily work in Microsoft Windows, specifically Windows XP Professional. But also like many of you, we're always on the lookout for a better client OS. It may be unfair to fault Microsoft for being the No. 1 target of hackers and worm authors, but that's what a near-monopoly brings.

Better security and lower cost of ownership are the primary reasons that companies not named Microsoft tout alternative operating systems. As high-profile options continue to mature, we thought it fitting to test what's out there. Ultimately, we decided we weren't ready for the long, uphill struggle that migrating to a new desktop OS would entail. But we agree with Heffernan that desktop Linux is getting closer to prime time'just not the desktop Linux version he might have suspected.

What we did

For three weeks, the GCN Lab put four alternative OSes through their paces: Mac OS X Version 10.3.7, Novell Linux Desktop 9, Red Hat Desktop 4 and Xandros Desktop OS 3. (Red Hat Desktop 4 was a release candidate version when we tested it.)

We invited Sun Microsystems to submit the latest version of its Linux-based Java Desktop System, but the company declined. Sun is in the process of upgrading the product and will release it in the coming months. The GCN Lab has evaluated Sun JDS in the past [,] and been impressed, especially by its Gnome interface and ability to work well on many different computers. In light of the problems we had in this review getting Linux products to load on various PCs, Sun JDS stands a good chance of being a top OS when the new version comes out.

So what constitutes a better OS? In evaluating Windows alternatives, we examined four general areas: ease of use, compatibility, security and features.

Ease of use covers the process of installing the OS, accessing its tools and making the necessary changes (adding and removing programs, for instance) that a desktop user might make.

Compatibility involves how the OS interacts with a network, peripherals (such as a printer), and software, including everything from device drivers to word processing applications.

Security encompasses not only the OS features that make it more hardened than others, but also the ease with which users can upgrade the OS when vulnerabilities are discovered'after all, Microsoft is no longer unique in its need to send out security patches.

Features are all the bells and whistles that make an operating system appealing, such as the capability to easily burn DVDs or transfer and edit photographs.

We installed the three Linux operating systems on a pair of desktop systems'a 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 desktop and an older 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 all-in-one'as well as a 1.6-GHz Centrino notebook. We evaluated Mac OS X on a PowerMac G5.

In desktop environments, we attempted to connect each system to a Windows 2000 and 2003 network. We also attached various peripherals, including a 100G USB portable storage device from CMS peripherals, a Fujitsu external floppy disk drive, a Samsung ML-2151 monochrome laser printer, and a Fujifilm FinePix F700 digital camera.

We then used the various operating systems, examining their features and security functions. Each of the Linux OSes came with the OpenOffice productivity suite, which is nicely compatible with Microsoft Office formats. Mac OS X does not come with a productivity bundle, although Mac systems normally have AppleWorks (a $79 program), which uses DataViz software translators to handle Microsoft Excel and Word files.

What we found

Speaking first only of operating systems based on x86 and Linux, it remains clear that getting such an OS to work in your particular environment is not guaranteed. Novell, Red Hat and Xandros each come with enough features and security tools to make them viable alternatives to a Windows desktop. But ease of use and compatibility issues remain.

We found it doesn't take much to stump most Linux-flavored operating systems. In our case, it was a state-of-the-art computer with integrated components on the motherboard.

Our 3.2-GHz Pentium 4, a Gateway E6300 that arrived in the lab last November, had the latest in desktop technology including an Intel 915G chip set. It also has a 32/64-bit PCI Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000 Card made by Lindy Computer Connection Technology, and an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 with integrated Sound Blaster compatible audio. No Linux operating system was able to install the device drivers to these components. After spending time with the companies' tech support, we discovered the network card required a proprietary device driver that would modify the kernel.

Interestingly, a Novell engineer who helped us search for remedies ultimately recommended we switch to a more mainstream desktop PC. He said the problems we faced with the E6300 are common in the Linux community. Too many vendors create their own device drivers outside of the open-source community and as a result, many cutting-edge devices aren't compatible or require a lot of work to function in a Linux environment. One expert told us as many as 40 percent of drivers are made by developers outside of open-source communities.

Installation on our all-in-one, a Gateway Profile 5, was smoother but not problem-free. For example, under Novell Desktop Linux, we had trouble getting a mouse cursor to appear. The Novell engineer couldn't find a solution and had never heard of the problem before.

Mac OS X is a bird of another feather. It's clearly easy to use, powerful and secure (although not airtight). But to adopt it you would need to decide it's worth not just a desktop software migration, but also a hardware overhaul. And it must play nicely with enterprise systems you have in place, such as Microsoft Exchange. Getting Macs integrated is a well-understood process (heck, GCN employs Macs that access our Exchange server), but we're not ready to toss out our Windows machines just yet.

Mac OS X Version 10.3.7

Pros: Easy to use, excellent interface

Cons: Joining a Microsoft network can be tricky

Apple's Mac OS X is the odd duck of this review for two reasons. First, it's not a Linux-based OS; it was built on a Unix kernel called Darwin'after a developer, not the naturalist. Second, if a Windows shop wanted to move to Mac OS X, it would have to buy new computers. Installation would be easy but expensive. Still, the new Mac Mini is only about $200 more than a copy of Windows XP Professional, making Apple a more serious player for those system refresh dollars.

Despite these differences, and not surprisingly, Mac OS X rates well in our review because of the friendly user interface and versatile OS capabilities. It lacks powerful Microsoft Office integration, such as the Crossover application that comes with the Xandros Desktop OS (see below), but most Mac computers come standard with AppleWorks, which does a decent job of opening Office files. Microsoft also makes an Office Suite for Apple, which is much better than AppleWorks, but you have to pay for it.

Ease of use in Mac OS X comes down to three things. First, a solitary hard drive icon called Finder leads to the entire contents of the computer in a well-designed interface. Second, a tool bar on the desktop lets you add and remove shortcuts to your favorite applications with a simple drag-and-drop motion. And third, a robust search engine in Finder makes everything accessible and easy to find.

Another feature that makes Mac OS X easier to use than Linux competitors is the no-nonsense way it installs applications. Users simply drag and drop an install file into the application folder in Finder and the OS takes over. Installing software in some Linux systems can be like pulling teeth to an inexperienced Linux user.

In our tests, Mac OS X easily recognized and configured our peripherals. One note: Those of you who've used Linux will recognize Mac OS X's requirement that you unmount an installed peripheral.

Difficult connection

The main complaint we have with Mac OS X is how difficult it was for us to connect to our Windows network. Throughout this review we had a hard time getting our PowerMac G5 to print to our network printer or access our Exchange Server.

Although Mac OS X is built on a secure platform, it nevertheless demands more updates than the other OSes in this roundup. Fortunately, Apple has provided a good auto-update feature, which periodically scans for patches and prompts the user to follow setup instructions.

Overall, Mac OS X is a good mixture of Linux and Microsoft environments. What's more, a new version, known as Tiger, is due out by midyear. This new Mac OS X 10.4 will have improved file searching, a dashboard feature that takes you to a series of useful applets and more. If you're ready to swap hardware platforms, you'll find it relatively easy to migrate. Just make sure you lay the groundwork for smooth integration with your back-end systems.

Novell Desktop Linux 9

Pros: Good user interface

Cons: Cumbersome installation and setup

Novell Desktop Linux 9 is the only OS in the roundup that we could not get running well on any machine we put it on. NDL, which is based on SuSE Enterprise Server 9 code, would not load at all on our notebook test bed and ran its best, although not perfectly, on our older Gateway Profile 5.

From what we could tell, NDL is easy to use, if installed properly. On the Profile 5, we were able to set up the Samsung printer, Fujifilm camera, Fujitsu floppy drive and CMS storage device without difficulty. We were also able to find files and set up our desktop environment with relative ease.

Browsing the Windows network was another matter. NDL is supposed to be able to join a network printer in an NT environment, but despite constant browsing of our network, we could not locate the printer'although we did find the correct print server. Novell engineers told us the best way to install the printer was to use its static IP address. Once we obtained the address, we completed our setup and the machine was able to print to the network. But this process required a lot more work than it should have.

NDL's embedded firewall and Linux 2.6 kernel, along with a well-built, easy-to-use auto-update feature makes NDL as secure as Xandros. And the interface is friendlier and easier to navigate than Red Hat Desktop 4. But the inability of this OS to install easily on three different computers was a letdown.

Ultimately, our experiences with NDL 9 left us craving Mac and Xandros environments, not to mention our own Windows desktops. NDL is a good example of why some Linux OSes have a long road to travel before they become effective Windows replacements.

Red Hat Desktop 4

Pros: Secure, nice plug and play

Cons: Complicated interface, setup issues

Our Red Hat Desktop 4 beta, which was just weeks from final release, gave us some trouble during setup. We finally installed it best, and without hassle, on our notebook test bed. Once up and running, Red Hat 4 had some impressive features, such as its plug-and-play capabilities. The printer, for example, worked one minute after connecting to the computer and required no help from the user to install and operate. Likewise, the storage device and floppy drive took no effort from the user to work.

Unlike Xandros, Red Hat 4, which is based on a Linux 2.6 kernel, doesn't automatically detect the contents of an installed drive and open a window of options for the user. Now, though, it is able to burn CDs with more ease and can automatically download pictures from select Linux-compatible cameras. It easily detected our FinePix F700, for example, and neatly placed the pictures in their own folder.

Also new to Red Hat 4, and perhaps most important to government users, is a subsystem called Security Enhanced Linux, which was implemented in conjunction with the National Security Agency. SELinux introduces a mandatory, policy-based access control system. Instead of lumping users as such under a single superuser account, Red Hat 4 gives control of privileges and policies for each independent service on the computer to a root or network administrator account. In short, the administrator can dictate which functions programs can perform. If a virus makes it to an application, an administrator can minimize its effect by limiting that application's ability to function fully.

The SELinux features complement another tool new to Red Hat 4 called Exec Shield. Exec Shield prevents buffer overflows. This makes it harder for such malicious applications as viruses to penetrate systems on the way to infecting your network.

Room for improvement

Red Hat has been slow to catch up with other OSes in terms of user interface. Red Hat 4 is cold and unwelcoming, and although the process of mounting a device or burning a CD has improved from previous versions, other user-friendly characteristics of the OS are still worlds apart from its competitors.

For example, we tried feverishly to install a separate version of Mozilla Firefox that we downloaded from the Web. After several minutes of looking for the proper file to run the install application, we contacted Red Hat engineers. They told us Firefox needed to be installed via the terminal application, which no one should ever have to go through to install simple software.

Although Red Hat seems to have improved greatly with Version 4, there's still room for improvement, particularly when it comes to creating an easier installation and friendlier navigation platform. But government users may be willing to work through setup issues to get at the product's secure infrastructure features.

Xandros Desktop OS Version 3

Pros: Easy to install and use, feature-rich

Cons: Somewhat expensive

Although Xandros had the same issues installing on our Gateway E6300 as other Linux releases, those were its only setup issues. More importantly, Xandros is the closest operating system to Windows XP Pro that we've seen in the lab. It easily detects device drivers and comes with the most logical installation wizards in our review.

Although the newest version of Xandros doesn't support Microsoft Active Directory, there is a business version 2.5 that does. Still, we were easily able to navigate our Windows 2000 and 2003 networks and install the network printer. Unlike its competitors in this roundup, we didn't have to know the network path or the IP address of the network printer when using Xandros. We simply followed the printer wizard, entered the user name and password to log on to the Windows domain, and browsed the domain for the print server.

A minus, and a plus

Xandros was able to mount the digital camera, floppy drive and storage device without difficulty. Linux users will be dismayed by the fact that the mounted drive doesn't appear on the desktop as with other OSes in our review. But a window holding the contents of the installed drive automatically opens when the drive is connected via USB or FireWire. A big plus with Xandros is that the mounted drive doesn't have to be unmounted; you can simply disconnect it.

Unlike Red Hat 4, Xandros installed the Mozilla Web application suite and OpenOffice productivity software while it installed the operating system'no need to go back and install them later.

But by far the most powerful feature of Xandros is its ability to run Microsoft Office applications through a program called Crossover, written by CodeWeavers Inc. of St. Paul, Minn. Crossover Office 4.1, originally bundled in Xandros 2.5, lets several supported Windows applications such as Microsoft Office 97, 2000, and XP run in the Linux environment. Crossover also makes Adobe PhotoShop 6, Adobe FrameMaker 7.1 and Dream-Weaver MX file compatible in the Xandros environment. With Crossover, government agencies using Lotus Notes 5 or later are also safe to use those applications. The Crossover application makes the transition from a Windows environment to a Linux world particularly easy.

We also liked Xandros' logical desktop interface, which rivals Mac OS X and Windows XP in ease of use. Almost everything you need for an operating system is found in either the Control Center or the File Manager, both of which are located through the Launch button (think Start button in Windows XP) at the bottom left of the desktop window. With a few clicks you can find the entire contents of the hard drive and the hardware specifications of the computer. In the main desktop window interface you have toolbar access to automatic updates, log out, lock desktop and virtual desktop features.

Virtual desktop, a unique feature in this review, lets you choose from two distinct desktop environments and facilitates multitasking. This feature is particularly important if you want to switch from a Linux terminal and code-driven environment to a more graphical environment with a single click.

Xandros combines simple and familiar OS navigation with compatibility. These ingredients, along with a safe Linux 2.6 kernel, automatic updates and embedded firewall, put Xandros in a position to compete with Windows XP.

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