Linux Renews Desktop Bid

Enterprises are looking again at Linux as a Windows alternative, although most won't make jump.

An old hand at using Linux in the server room, Steve OBrien, director of IT operations for Jefferson County, Colo., spent the last five years eagerly waiting for Linux to make the leap to the corporate desktop. First, however, Linux would have to satisfy OBriens checklist of requirements: It had to provide access to his Novell Inc. GroupWise e-mail system, an easy-to-use browser, the ability to read and write Microsoft Corp. Office file formats, as well as the ability to interact with AS/400 midrange servers.

This year, with the release of OpenOffice.orgs OpenOffice 1.0 office productivity suite for Linux, the last of OBriens requirements were met. While Windows will always be on a substantial number of his desktops, OBrien gave users the green light to migrate to Linux. He said he hopes to see 20 percent of his desktop computing environment on Linux by the end of next year, and so far 30 of his 1,600 users have made the move.

Until now, Linux has not been considered ready for corporate desktops. But with Red Hat Inc., and other big players in the Linux world releasing key products for the desktop, IT managers such as OBrien are beginning to see Linux as a viable alternative to Windows.

But even fans such as OBrien caution against making the move off Windows without exercising great care and consideration. And, they warn, organizations shouldnt expect a move to Linux to significantly cut desktop costs. While Linux may be freely available over the Internet, costs associated with support, training and administration can more than make up for any licensing savings. As a result, say experts, desktop Linux, although attractive for some narrow applications, is unlikely to pose a serious threat to Windows as a widely used desktop operating system any time soon.

"We have definitely been hearing a lot of rumblings about [desktop] Linux," said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "The trick here is to decide if theres real business value from making a move to Linux, or if youre just doing it to spite Microsoft. It can be just as expensive to move off Microsoft."

Indeed, even though CIOs are obsessed these days with getting the most value out of their software vendors, few at large enterprises seem to be clamoring to replace Windows with Linux on a wholesale basis. Analysts dont foresee Linux making a large dent in Microsofts stranglehold on the desktop market within the next five years.

"I buy software because the value-cost benefit is right," said Daniel McNicholl, CIO of General Motors North America, in Detroit, who describes himself as an operating system agnostic. "I have no basis for or against Linux. If vendors need to switch to Linux in order to reduce my costs, then so be it." So far, however, McNicholl said he has no plans to deploy Linux on desktops at GM.