IT managers eye desktop Linux

Suddenly it's no laughing matter

The idea of using Linux on corporate desktops was a laughing matter when the open source operating system began infiltrating data centres a few years ago. But at last week's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, many IT staffers said their companies aren't laughing anymore.

That doesn't mean all the potential hitches facing desktop Linux migrations have been eliminated, according to nine attendees and two analysts. Nonetheless, IT managers such as Dan Pritchard said they're eyeing Linux as a possible alternative to Windows on end-user PCs.

Pritchard, director of IT at Entelos, said the life sciences company likely will move its 90 users to a desktop release of Linux when its Windows maintenance contract comes up for renewal — provided that the open-source software works better with Research In Motion 's BlackBerry mobile devices at that point than it does now.

"Usually where it all falls apart is linking it to [BlackBerries]," Pritchard says. But he adds that the cost savings promised by desktop Linux are alluring. "It's the money that will get the executives to sign, given that Microsoft continues to do more and more maintenance [fee] increases," he says.

Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse runs about 3000 Linux-based PCs in its corporate offices and its 360 retail stores, says Matt Fahrner, the manager of network services. The retailer gives its Linux users Sun's StarOffice applications or the software suite instead of Office. "Most of what we need to do, we can do [with those applications]," Fahrner says. "It's not a handicap."

IT managers at two other large companies, who asked not to be identified, voiced differing expectations about the likelihood of deploying Linux on their desktops.

A vice president for IT at a grocery store chain says his company will start using Linux-based servers within the next three months for a pilot project involving in-store customer marketing programs. But the company isn't likely to move to Linux on the desktop because it gets heavily discounted, long-term pricing on Windows and Office from Microsoft, he adds.

However, a Linux systems engineer at a bank with more than 100,000 users says desktop Linux is very much a topic of discussion internally because of its promised cost savings. "In the banking environment, it's always about money," he says. The bank plans to run a desktop Linux pilot project next year.

Desktop Linux news was sparse at the conference. Novell showed a demo copy of a new desktop release of its SUSE Linux software and said it will announce detailed plans this fall. Hewlett-Packard unveiled a notebook PC that's preloaded with Linux.

During a panel discussion, speakers offered suggestions for companies contemplating migrations to desktop Linux. First, there has to be a solid reason to make the switch, they said. In addition, needed applications must be available on Linux. Driver support and interoperability with systems that run Windows is also important, as is making sure that the IT support team is experienced with Linux, the panelists said.

J. Craig Manning, manager of IT at Cisco, says that one of the biggest challenges to its desktop Linux plans is a lack of support for applications from independent software vendors. He notes that a system Cisco uses to track technical support requests runs well on Windows but not as well on Linux. "That's where we're having a lot of trouble, with the ISVs," Manning says.

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