Operating system faces challenges, opportunities from all sides.
Linux, the scarcely decade-old open-source operating system, looks to have reached a sort of critical mass and has entered into an awfully busy period in its development. Theres a major kernel update around the corner, an audacious licensing challenge with which to contend, and a rush by virtually every major enterprise IT vendor not located at 1 Microsoft Way to jump on the Linux bandwagon or help take up the reins and drive its development.
Linux on handhelds
Linux has a tendency to make its way onto all manner of computing devices, great and small. Heres what has been happening with Linux in the handheld computing area:
Motorola Inc. launched last month its first smart phone, the A760, to run Linux.
At LinuxWorld, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. demonstrated a handheld device powered by its Alchemy Au1100 processor and running a Linux OS based on Metrowerks OpenPDA suite.
In August, Metrowerks released CodeWarrior Development Studio for Sharp Zaurus Application Development 1.0, a programming tool for Linux handhelds.
Also in August, Opie, the Open Palmtop Integrated Environment, saw its 1.0 release. More information on the the graphical user environment for handhelds running Linux can be found at opie.handhelds.org.
However, the data centers and cubicles of enterprise IT still hold plenty of challenges for Linux, particularly if the operating system is to continue its spread upwardinto larger, many-processor serversand outwardto claim a share of the client market that now belongs almost exclusively to Windows.
One of the biggest issues facing current and potential Linux users is the looming 2.6 release of the kernel, which is available in beta form from kernel.org and expected to be released this fall. Linux vendors will build the kernel into their distributions soon thereafter.
The 2.6 kernel release includes improvements across the gamut of systems running Linux, from large multiprocessor servers to desktop computers to embedded devices.
For example, the new kernel supports NUMA (Non-Uniform Memory Access), which will enable multiprocessor systems to use system memory more efficiently. In addition, the kernel is optimized to take better advantage of Intel Corp.s hyperthreading capabilities. This will enable companies to get the most out of their hardware.
Both desktop and server implementations of Linux will benefit from the kernels new device model, which will improve support for hot plugging and Advanced Configuration and Power Interface.
The 2.6 release also includes reworked audio and video subsystems, and the fact that the kernel will now be pre-emptible should improve multimedia performance as well as make systems feel more responsive.
These sorts of basic architectural improvements may smooth the path for desktop Linux, but the toughest challenges in this area involve packaging and delivering Linux to companies in an effective, manageable form.
Leading Linux distributors Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux AG market desktop-oriented operating systems that do a good job of managing most common computing requirements by combining the very good KDE (K Desktop Environment) or GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) desktop environments with key applications such as the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, Mozilla Web browser and Evolution mail application. (See our review of the Red Hat Enterprise 3.0 beta.)
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Next page: The Price Structure Challenge.
One of the major challenges that Red Hat and SuSE face is figuring out a price structure that can keep them in business while keeping users happy.
Red Hat has hastened the pace of development and shortened the span of support on its mainstream Linux distribution in hopes that companies will shift to Red Hats enterprise release.
Although the enterprise version is licensed no less freely than the standard version, its distributed under more onerous terms. One of the terms of the service agreement, under which companies receive security updates and bug fixes for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, is that companies pay a yearly subscription for each system they have that runs the distribution.
How "free" is Linux? Read Jim Rapozas views on the matter.
Breaking the agreement means losing the update service, and companies thereby must download security updates and fixes and compile themthe source RPM packages are all freely available on Red Hats site.
While Red Hat, SuSE and other distributors have built attractive offerings with open-source components, other, more established namesincluding Sun Microsystems Inc. and Novell Inc.are betting they can widen the reach of desktop Linux by stacking their own branding and services atop what Red Hat and SuSE provide.
Suns desktop Linux offering, which for now it calls Mad Hatter, will be built with the same basic components as Red Hats and SuSEs releases and may even ship as a set of Sun-branded software running atop those distributions.
It seems that Novell will likewise piggyback atop releases from Red Hat and SuSE because thats the way desktop Linux company Ximian Inc.which Novell recently acquiredoperates.
eWEEK Labs has spoken to IT managers who have expressed concern about providing comparable services to Linux and Windows users, and its those sorts of concerns that offerings from Sun and Novell may help address.
The Linux Terminal Server Project, which saw its namesake Version 4 release at the recent LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, offers companies another way to make Linux work for them on the desktop while stressing manageability and low cost.
The open-source project converts a standard Linux distribution into an X Window System terminal server for thin clients. This latest version of LTSP includes tools for configuring individual terminals.
LTSP can particularly benefit companies that wish to keep older hardware in use for users with basic computing needs.
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Next page: Linux Shops Face Application Hurdles.
Windows shops have the luxury of assuming that virtually any peripheral or piece of software theyre interested in deploying will support their platform, but Linux shops are not so lucky (yet). Because the desktop space is now such solid Windows territory, however, companies looking to deploy Linux on the desktop will encounter various application availability hurdleswhether the client approach they adopt is a thick or thin one.
For example, many Web collaboration packages, although built on cross-platform-friendly platforms such as Java and the Internet, nonetheless require Internet Explorer to operate.
While OpenOffice.org does a good job of replicating the functionality of Microsoft Corp.s Office, Microsofts productivity suite is a moving target. The new Office application Infopath, for example, is meant to introduce to knowledge workers a new sort of document thats rich with data, formatting and business logica richness that requires a thick client that happens to run only on Windows 2000 or better.
As long as the industrys most prolific application software vendor is also its dominant client platform provider, these sorts of application compatibility issues will prove tough to avoid completely. Discuss this in the eWeek forum.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.