What users want from Linux

FRAMINGHAM (10/17/2003) - Enhanced system management capabilities, better security, support for third-party drivers and more unity among the various distributions top user wish lists when it comes to Linux. They also would like to see more of their peers embrace the open source operating system as it evolves into a platform capable of supporting even the most-critical layers in the data center.

"One of the biggest hurdles that Linux has to overcome to be a bigger player in the enterprise is FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)," says Timothy Kennedy, a senior projects engineer at content-services firm YellowBrix Inc. in Alexandria, Va. "As Linux continues to prove itself in the enterprise, corporations are becoming more confident of the performance and savings that Linux offers. And with corporate support available (from companies like Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp.), it provides some peace of mind."

What follows is a wish list compiled from discussions with more than a dozen network professionals and Linux aficionados:

1. Monitoring tools.

With Linux being deployed in more areas of the data center, users are looking for better ways to manage Linux systems - and easier ways to find those tools.

"When a machine hangs, I'd like to be able to create system dumps for analysis by others or myself. System tracing tools also would be very helpful in pinpointing problems," says Jeff Davis, technical lead at petroleum firm Amerada Hess in Houston. "Tools may exist, but I'm not aware of them. Better marketing of features of the Linux kernels would probably make locating new features easier for the busy systems administrator."

Davis adds that he'd like to see management tools focused on networked Linux machines that would enable him "to completely automate management of a large number of systems, reducing the day-to-day administration tasks and allowing me to focus on value-added tasks."

"Tools are becoming available and Linux is inherently open to this kind of management," he says.

2. Reliability.

New versions of the Linux kernel have improved the operating system's reliability, but users say they could always use a more-hardened platform. Disaster-recovery options should be expanded, they say.

"LVM 2 (Logical Volume Management)/EVMS (Enterprise Volume Management System) and back-up software need to be improved," says Russell Coker, an engineer for a software company in Melbourne, Australia, that he asked not be identified. "Commonly used applications such as OpenLDAP need to be made cluster-aware."

3. Security.

Security continues to be a big issue as backers position Linux as a Unix or Windows alternative in business networks. Efforts to steel the operating system, including the National Security Agency-backed Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux) project, need to be embraced by vendors.

"Security is a problem. SELinux, plus better training of administrators, is needed," Coker says.

Bill Rugolosky, director of Telemetry Investments in New York City, agrees. "SELinux promises to make Linux a whole lot more secure, and given (recent attacks on Microsoft systems) events . . . very attractive to those currently . . . using Windows," he says.

4. Simplicity.

Linux has the reputation of being overly complicated, and Linux users would like to see that image softened.

"It has long been perceived by some that installing and configuring Linux is some sort of impossible task, and only for experienced computer enthusiasts and professionals," says Peter Baylies, a computer consultant in Durham, N.C. "I don't think that this is necessarily the case anymore. The perception part of the problem can be remedied through appropriate marketing and training." Intuitive interfaces and good documentation would help create a more user friendly Linux, he adds.

"My ideal Linux operating system would be very user-configurable and responsive, and would have a standard and consistent interface for system configuration," Baylies says. "It would allow a novice to customize the environment as much as possible. Also, it would need very little maintenance, while still keeping the system up-to-date."

5. Hardware support.

Users are asking for better support for things such as third-party drivers, printer management and graphic interfaces.

"I have certain drivers and pieces of software that require a specific version of the Linux kernel," Hess' Davis says. "This makes it difficult in some cases to put various pieces together on the same system or to keep up with kernel fixes and security updates. Many vendors ship drivers that I can build into any kernel, making the kernel decision mine."

As for printing, Davis says that today he has to create and manage printers individually for each Linux system. "Every time I have to visit all the systems that need access to the printer," he says. "Some sort of directory allowing users to locate and connect to printers on their own would be very nice."

6. Cohesiveness.

Users don't want to see Linux go the way of Unix, where vendors created their own proprietary versions that made it difficult to port applications to one from another. A more-cohesive approach would result in a better operating system, they say.

"I would like to see more-united Linux development," says Gabriel Kihlman, a software developer at financial application firm Univits International in Stockholm, Sweden. "The patchwork that a Linux distribution is today does not inspire confidence. The BSD operating systems have a more unified distribution, which does not change as much (with) each new release. The difference between the major distributions is a big drawback."

7. Applications.

Some users running Linux have found limitations when it comes to software deployment and would like to see a broader range of applications supported, both on the server and desktop.

"Support for Windows-based applications would be a definite plus," says Bill Hicks, senior vice president of technology and CIO at Precision Response, a customer-care services firm in Miami. "We are currently investigating the feasibility of running Linux as a desktop solution. The challenge for us is there is a wide range of third-party applications we must support or integrate at the desktop. This volume of application support makes Linux a challenge on the desktop side. However, there are niches for us to use Linux at the desktop, with candidates being 3270 emulation and base CRM environments."

8. Skilled developers.

Linux is becoming more widely deployed in corporate data centers, but users say that training for Linux programmers is lagging.

"We need more skilled Linux programmers," the Australian software company's Coker says. "To solve this we need programmer's special interest groups at user conferences and we need more university support for open source programming. Many universities just teach students how to program on Windows, and as a result they don't get to learn much (if anything) about how a computer really works. Then when it comes to debugging race conditions, network programming, or library code they don't have a clue about what to do."

9. GUI.

Network execs would like to see an easier-to-use and better-performing GUI.

"(Linux) is still command-line-oriented. I don't consider that a drawback, but newbies would mostly come from the Windows world and that flashing command prompt is intimidating," says Tom Bakken, information resource manager at U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development in Temple, Texas.

10. Consolidation.

Instead of having basic tools spread around the operating system, users would like to see them all in one easy-to-find location.

"I would go more toward the BSD world and collect all the base tools into one big repository and maintain it together," Univits' Kihlman says. "This would remove a lot of extra work and free resources for GUI and application enhancements."

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