Making desktop Linux work for business

When it comes to making the break from Windows, Linux is ready when you are

Today's IT managers face tough choices. PCs that run fine today have an uncertain upgrade path, now that Microsoft has chosen to discontinue Windows XP. Upgrade costs associated with Vista, coupled with the ever-escalating cost of application licenses, make switching to desktop Linux an increasingly attractive option.

For many businesses, however, it's difficult to know where to begin. The Linux market is broad and thriving, with myriad options to choose from. Most organizations will want to phase in Linux gradually, which in many cases will mean supporting a heterogeneous computing environment for the first time. As a result, it can be hard to predict where software incompatibilities might affect critical business processes.

Fortunately, the future of Linux on the business desktop has never been brighter. Bolstered by contributions from some of the biggest names in IT, today's Linux offers a rich, highly functional user experience to compete with any proprietary OS. With appropriate planning, integrating a limited number of Linux desktops into your existing environment can be undertaken with minimal difficulty, paving the way for a broader migration tomorrow.

Finding the right match for your business

If you do deploy Linux, choosing a distribution is one of the most important decisions you will make. Don't be tempted to mix distributions haphazardly. Each flavor of Linux bundles its own version of the kernel with a unique blend of code libraries, utilities, and applications. Each also offers its own style of system configuration and management. Because of this, introducing more than one or two distinct distributions into a given environment is usually asking for trouble.

For business use, a distribution backed by commercial support is the best choice. Even if you have Linux experience in-house, a single unforeseen crisis can cause IT costs to skyrocket when you have nowhere to call for help.

For this reason, set realistic expectations early in the decision-making process: Linux isn't going to be free. It will, however, be cheap. The software itself is free, which means that the traditional costs associated with regular upgrade cycles are virtually eliminated. It's easier to evaluate the success of a Linux migration if you focus on long-term goals.

The traditional "big two" Linux vendors, Red Hat and Novell, each offer a desktop Linux distribution backed by commercial support. Either is suitable for large-scale enterprise use, and indeed, very large organizations may want to limit their search to these two choices.

If you can afford to be flexible, however, the desktop Linux market includes a number of lesser-known options -- including Linspire, Mandriva, Ubuntu, and Xandros, among others -- that specialize in delivering a high-quality user experience and are similarly backed by commercial support. The exact best fit will largely be a matter of personal taste.

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Neil McAllister

InfoWorld
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