Desktop Linux Poised for Breakthrough

Novell sees a sizeable upside to Linux on the desktop—and hints that the sun might soon set on Microsoft’s Windows empire

While Linux has more than a foot in the door in the enterprise back room, it still hasn’t made much of a dent, relatively speaking, on the corporate desktop.

Last year, Linux powered about three percent of all desktop systems, according to market research from International Data Corp. It may not seem like much, but it was good enough to displace the venerable MacOS for second place. What’s more, IDC predicted impressive growth for Linux, with the open-source operating system expected to nearly double its market share by 2007.

As if that’s not enough, one optimistic projection from global services giant Siemens Business Systems said that Linux could garner as much as 20 percent of the overall desktop market share by 2008.

Officials from Novell Inc. have a similarly optimistic take on the prospects for desktop Linux in the coming year. “We’ve asked our customers how many plan to adopt a Linux desktop, and if you count up the numbers that definitely plan to do it, the numbers are 65 to 70 percent of the Novell customer base plan to do that,” said Ed Anderson, vice president of product marketing for Novell, in an interview last November. “We expect that there’s going to be some movement there, and we think that there are some use cases in particular where the Linux desktop is absolutely poised to succeed.”

Anderson believes there are many applications for which a Linux client is a no-brainer alternative to Microsoft’s Windows on the corporate desktop. “Because it’s based on Linux, it has some capabilities that make Microsoft Windows a more difficult alternative. Some of the fault-tolerance capabilities, and architecturally the way that it’s built [give] it a competitive advantage in many cases,” he noted. “We’re very aggressively positioning it for more of the fixed-function workstations, or the less sophisticated users who have a specific solution set that they have to deal with."

Nevertheless, it’s clear that Novell sees desktop Linux as a lot more than just a dumb-terminal replacement. Last year, for example, the network operating system champ released its first Linux desktop offering, the Novell Linux Desktop, which incorporates the technology assets of both SuSE and the former Ximian.

“We wanted to release this product to accomplish a couple of important goals. First of all, the Novell Linux desktop was built with a very complete set of applications and services that are native to the desktop that make it very usable for a knowledge worker or productivity worker,” Anderson explained. “We wanted to make sure that it had full office applications, so we put OpenOffice in there. We wanted to make sure it was manageable, so it has full integration with ZENWorks and so on.”

Building a More Manageable Linux

For a long time, manageability was the bane of many a Windows administrator’s existence. In fact, Microsoft spent the better part of seven years designing a more manageable Windows desktop—and many administrators would argue that the software giant still doesn’t have it right.

Novell and other Linux vendors have learned from Microsoft’s mistakes, however, and have emphasized desktop manageability from day one. And thanks to Novell’s own expertise in this area—directories are the foundations of distributed management, and Novell Directory Services is one of the oldest and most trusted enterprise directories on the market—Anderson says his company has an edge over most other desktop Linux players.

As a result of its acquisition of Ximian, for example, Novell has incorporated a software update feature, similar to the Red Hat Network, into its Zero Effort NetWorks (ZENWorks) offering. “One of the technologies they had in their portfolio was a product called Red Carpet, which is a lot like the Red Hat Network. It’s really a mechanism of using the Internet to get real-time updates as patches become available,” said Anderson. “So we’re able to use the red carpet technology to deploy patches and other updates from a staging area across your enterprise environment. The technology was built to work with basically any Linux distribution, including SuSE and Red Hat.”

Novell now markets a product called ZENWorks Linux Management that incorporates its own technology along with assets from SuSE and Ximian.

Because Novell markets a Linux desktop that includes productivity applications (such as OpenOffice) for users and manageability features (like ZENWorks) for administrators, the company has even fielded several inquiries from customers interested in deploying the Novell Linux Desktop as a replacement for Microsoft Windows. “What’s been fascinating is people who are using the Novell Linux desktop as a Microsoft replacement, which frankly caught us a little bit off guard,” Anderson confirmed. “People are pretty anxious to start adopting it, even with the fact that some of the third-party applications still aren’t there.”

So what kind of uptake has Novell seen? “From a statistical perspective, the Novell Linux Desktop saw more activity and interest from the industry than any product we’ve ever released before, and we measured that in terms of the activity we saw on the Web site,” Anderson says. “We believe that Linux on the desktop—starting with this first release form Novell—will continue to grow in capabilities and will represent a very viable alternative for our customers. We think we will have sizeable share in the desktop market.”

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with consultancy Illuminata, says the jury’s still out on Novell’s desktop Linux strategy.

“This is something that’s definitely going to take some time,” he comments. “It’s not something where you’re going to have this sort of groundswell movement overnight. [IT organizations] are going to want to see what’s there [in the Novell Linux Desktop] to be sure that all of the pieces are there before they commit.” As for the prospects of Linux on the desktop, Haff takes a more pragmatic approach. “Certainly, for certain applications, it does make sense, sort of as an inexpensive alternative to Windows,” he indicates. “You’re starting to see some places, some industries like financial services are doing this, but they’re usually out ahead of everyone else.”

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