Picking Your Lightweight Linux Desktop

Opinion: Whether you're just sick to death of Windows problems or you're looking for a better return on investment, lightweight approaches to the Linux desktop deserve your attention.

OK, so youre ready to at least start thinking about switching to a Linux desktop. What should you be looking for?

Well, to answer that question, you first need to answer another question: What are you using your desktop for? Today, Im going to talk about lightweight Linux desktops. Next time up, Ill yack about real Windows desktop replacement options, but for business uses, sometimes you dont need a full-featured Windows or Linux desktop.

For example, lets say youve got a couple hundred users running, say, NT 4.0 Workstation—your poor devil—or Windows 98SE, and theyre working on basic data entry or retrieval applications. In that case, youre probably also running older machines, and youd want to extend their useful lives for the least amount of cash possible.

If you have Linux expertise in-house, Id go with a lightweight Linux desktop such as Vector Linux. You can roll your own, of course, if you have real Linux experts at your beck and call. But if you only have some Linux knowledge at hand, you should be able to do fine with a lightweight distribution.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here for more reasons to try a Linux desktop.

But lets say you want more control over your desktops. In that case, what you want is a Linux-based, thin-client approach. If thats you, you can also put together your own Linux thin-client solution with LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project).

With LTSP, you dont even need real PCs on the other end of the connection. Diskless workstations, or seriously underpowered PCs, will work just as well.

To deploy LTSP properly, though, you do need to have a wee bit of Linux expertise in the house. If you dont, theres a new, easy-to-use Linux thin-client package based on LTSP and Debian Linux that almost anyone can set up: Skolelinux.

Skolelinux was designed for school use with minimal resources in every sense of the word. This Norwegian-created Linux distribution is the easiest-to-install thin-client operating system, regardless of its parent operating system, that Ive ever seen.

But that doesnt mean that its underpowered. It comes with OpenOffice and an assortment of other popular open-source programs, including the Mozilla Web browser and Evolution groupware. If you want a powerful Linux thin-client solution thats simple and cheap, Skolelinux would be my first choice.

Need more support? If thats you, then youll want to check out a commercial thin-client approach. Wyse Technology is offering its new Wyse Linux 3.2 for its 5125SE and 5455XL models of Winterm desktops.

Dont let the names fool you, the Winterms run Linux. Besides being a server-centric approach, Wyse also offers remote management using its own Rapport 4.0 software and security via PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) for remote users using a corporate VPN.

Want more from a desktop? In that case, Sun with its Java Desktop System and Novell with SuSE Linux both offer software-only, thin-client packages with comprehensive workstation management and server. With either of those, of course, you can also upgrade to a full-fledged desktop Linux, but thats a story for my next column.

eWEEK.com Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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