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Implementing non-Windows Desktops in the Real World

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Posted: 19 Jul 2004

[Freshly Updated with Suggestion] A reader recently submitted this interesting topic and we thought we'd open it up and see what you have to say about it. This individual works in the health care field, but we're guessing that his managers aren't the only ones who want to reduce costs and still give their users speedy, stable desktops to work on.

Here's what he said:

The cost of Microsoft Office, Windows and all their client licenses, are starting to approach the cost of the workstation hardware. We'd like to investigate a lower cost workstation, with the focus on software alternatives such as Linux, OpenOffice, etc. We currently manage our Windows workstations with ZENworks. Many of our applications either are currently running from or being ported to the Citrix environment.

Therefore, I would like to see an ongoing discussion of implementing fully managed non-Windows desktops, with an eye towards software cost containment. Tangible monetary savings per workstation are what get the attention from the decision makers. We don't want to compromise workstation speed or stability in the process. We also want to minimize the learning curve the users may have to endure to switch from a Windows to Linux environment.

OPEN CALL: Got any experiences to share? Cautionary tales? Hidden costs to watch out for? Fire when ready...


David Bussenschutt

Here's how I replace Windows in a corporate environment (where appropriate):

Operating system:
MS windows -> RedHat (or Fedora) Linux and Gnome based X-windows

Word Processor,spreadsheet etc:
MS Office -> Openoffice

MS Outlook -> Novell's Ximian Evolution

Application "building" (ie building SOE elements):
Symantec or Novell ZENworks or Microsoft app builders -> RPM package manager

Application delivery:
Novell ZENworks -> ":redhat network" daemon (rhnd) and/or "up2date" (have a look at for a great opensource server for redhat's up2date client)

Basic Authentication/Password and Credentials management:
Windows AD or Domain -> Novell's edirectory 8.7 or higher running LDAP services with RFC3207bis schema extensions.... OR openldap for smaller systems. (linux PAM, samba, squid etc etc all support LDAP authentication these days)

Windows or Novell server/s -> Linux running Samba 3.x

anything running oracle -> linux running oracle 9i anything accessed via ODBC -> linux running MySQL or PostGreSQL

Well, I think that's a good start...what do you think?

(Novell sysadmin since NetWare 3.x)
(Linux sysadmin since slackware had a Kernel version 0.9x)


Be aware of the difference in support for RedHat and Fedora with up2date. I suggest that SUSE/XD2 and RedCarpet may be a better solution for corporate users where support is a priority over price.

Chris Hopp

To (see Reader Comments below)

1. I have not had the negative experiences with OpenOffice cited below, and have had it run quite well on machines well under 1.5 GHz/500 MB. Might be some configuration issues, there. Try Ximian's mod to or look for support on OOo's site to see if you can improve performance.

2. Perhaps MyODBC can be made to work for this purpose. Otherwise, I'd check with Oracle:

3. This article gives some insight into how this may be done:

Otherwise, please take a look at Novel client, which has worked well for me (just create some links to mounted NetWare directories on users' desktops):

Randy Grein

Hmm. Use of a non-Windows OS. Something I've been doing for, let's see - 16 years, privately and professionally. Generally there are three objections I run into:

  1. I HAVE to have Microsoft Office!
  2. I HAVE to have application X, which is only available for DOS/Windows/NT/2000/XP.
  3. We want a single vendor solution, and Microsoft will be/is the market leader.

Objection 3 is a deal breaker. Nothing can be done with an emotional attachment to an irrational business decision, so let's take objection 2. Even small offices have one or more legacy applications hanging around that require a Microsoft OS. For various reasons of cost, migration pain or (rarely) lack of suitable replacements these must be supported, sometimes for years. The obvious solution is Terminal Services/Citrix. With clients for Windows, Macintosh and Linux it's easy to migrate the remaining, more standard applications to a new OS while continuing to support the legacy application. (Gee, doesn't this feel like the move from mainframes?)

This leaves us with objection 1 - Office. There are several Office suite substitutes - Open Office, Star Office, Lotus Smartsuite, WordPerfect, etc. Any of these give at least 90% of the necessary functionality, which for most users is all they need. They also give platform portability, allowing user choice and preventing vendor lock-in. For those who absolutely must have absolute fidelity with Microsoft Office (viral code and all) there are two choices - Apple Macintosh and Terminal services/Citrix. The 'always on' nature of office suites makes this a full time connection for each user, and a poor candidate for terminal services - the installation is just as complex, requires just as many licenses and provides no savings.

Thus, even those who absolutely MUST have Microsoft Office have a viable alternative to the Windows monopoly in, of all things, Apple Macintosh. IT perceptions to the contrary, the modern Mac OS is far more open than Windows - nearly all open source Linux applications are available under Mac OS X, many conveniently precompiled and ready for use. (Hardly a surprise; it IS, after all, BSD unix.) In addition, thousands of commercial applications are available in every major software catagory. Keep an open mind as to the wide range of solutions, and you'll never be boxed in again.

David Eliasson

Well, here's how I replace Windows in a school/education environment here in Sweden (where appropriate, and depending on the budget ):

Operating system:

MS Windows -> Debian GNU/Linux workstations or X-terminals (Old PC:s booting over PXE) updating via a central apt-repository. (apt-get dist-upgrade simply rules =) If more money is available I would go for the new Novell SUSE Desktops.

Word Processor,spreadsheet etc:

MS Office -> OpenOffice, AbiWord, maybe Koffice depending on machine spec. (AbiWord for the X-terminals for example..)


MS Outlook -> Novell's Ximian Evolution, or GroupWise depending on available cash.

Application "building" (ie building SOE elements):

Symantec or Novell ZENworks or Microsoft app builders -> DEB/RPM-format. Or ZENworks for Linux Desktops?

Application delivery:

Novell ZENworks -> " local APT-repository and scripts or ZENworks for Linux =) X-terminals doesn?t need any delivery..

Basic Authentication/Password and Credentials management:

Windows AD or Domain -> Novell's eDirectory 8.7 or higher running LDAP services with RFC3207bis schema extensions.... OR openldap for smaller systems. (linux PAM, samba, squid etc etc all support LDAP authentication these days).


Windows or Novell servers -> OpenAFS-cell on Linux or Samba 3.x depending on needs. Or future NetWare 7 on Linux.


Linux running Oracle 9i or MySQL for webservers etc.



(Novell sysadmin since NetWare 3.x)
(Linux sysadmin since Redhat 4.2, kernel 2.0.x)
(Windows sysadmin since Win3.x)

Martin Skjöldebrand

Here's another solution to connect to NetWare servers from Linux clients. Haven't had the time to try it out yet, but was what we had in mind:

Jack Turner

I can provide you some feedback on what I found when I looked at making a Linux alternative to our current 2000/XP desktop, as I feel it is probably representative of how close we are, and how far we need to go, to migrate to Linux. I'll admit up front that while I use Linux to a limited degree, I can not claim to be an expert. There may well be work-arounds and software available of which I'm not aware that could resolve some of the issues I encountered.

First of all, while I could get almost all of the hardware working, it took me about 2 days to get the sound card to work, using the ALVA driver set. I checked the sound chip manufacturer (ADI), the chip integrator (Intel), and the hardware provider (HP) web sites, but no one has a specific driver for Linux. I checked the IBM web site?they use the same chip and are supposed to be going to Linux on the desktop, but they do not have drivers for the ADI chips on their web site, either. Since we use imaging technology to deploy the operating system, I only needed to get the sound card working on one machine, but still two days to get the sound working is unsatisfactory. The archaic command line setup really took some time to master. For Linux to go mainstream, they really need to make the entire hardware configuration easier.

Once I had the standard Linux desktop, I started to look at the standard application suite. The first thing that grabs a NetWare user is that there is no IP-based client for Linux. There is an open source IPX-based client, but Novell does not offer a client for Linux that is on par with their client for Windows. Access to clustered resources requires an IP-based client!! I understand their wanting to "get out of the client business", as our local SE puts it, but they have the source code for the existing Windows client! Pay someone to port it to Linux! Jees, if they can have a Linux and a NetWare server migrating clustered volumes between them, how hard could it be to have a client that provides access to NetWare from Linux!! The "use NFS or CIFS on the NetWare server" also does not cut it. The servers are stable, why do I want to start introducing unknowns into this environment!!

Second, we use GroupWise, and while I applaud Novell for the cool GroupWise 6.5 client for Linux, it does not seem to want to connect to a GroupWise 6.0 server?what we are using, of course. OK, this is not insurmountable. But a stumbling block to a full Linux desktop, nonetheless.

The standard Office suite does not seem to lack for alternatives under Linux, but I keep hearing stories of subtle format inconsistencies between Office and Office clones. We can probably live with that, or at least use PDF for sending files that don't need further editing.

We also use Compaq (HP) hardware, and we use the Insight Agents on these workstations for management?no Linux versions are available, however. This is what forwards alarms to our central monitoring software.

We use Altiris for desktop management, and there are Linux clients available. I could not do a test of functionality, however. I'd like to see an application push to a Linux platform, and how hard the entire process would be, from creating the Rapid Install Package to actually pushing the package to the workstation.

PDA sync to Linux leaves something to be desired. The current Palm and PocketPC versions (last I looked) were alpha versions 0.8.9. At least there should be an answer here sometime in the near future.

I tried to find a Linux Anti-Virus client, but I couldn't really find anything that looked worthwhile. We use Symantec Anti-Virus Corporate Edition, but it does not seem to include Linux support.

I don't know how printer support with NDPS works, but it did not seem like I would be able to do that natively. I was able to get IPP-based printing working, to co-exist with iPrint (using the url ipp://printername), but again the hardware was not easy to setup properly. The drivers were difficult to install, and not as flexible as the Windows versions. Also, I don't know about scanner support for Linux, but that would have to be resolvable.

Iomega makes Linux Tools for IomegaWare version 1.0?the Windows version is up to version 4.0.2. At least there is support available! I did not test this software, however (my test machine did not have a Zip drive).

And what about browser compatibility issues? More and more sites are writing to IE5 or higher, and Mozilla/Netscape just won't work with some sites. The old Catch-22: When Linux has more of a market share, more web authors will write to a compatible format, but these incompatibles hinder the widespread adoption of Linux.

I didn't really have the time to research a lot of stuff, but for full functionality, we need the following. Some of this can be provided through available tools, but I didn't really have time to figure out what to use, or which worked best.

    Desktop Publishing (Publisher)
    Project Manager (Project)
    Technical Diagramming (Visio)
    An Acrobat writer (there is not a stand alone product, but this functionality is incorporated into the Open Office suite)
    Apple QuickTime
    Media Players
    GroupWise e-mail to PDA sync capability
    CD-R/RW burning software (Roxio does not make a Linux version)
    An SAP front-end.

Of course, we can load VMware and run any Windows program under Linux, but that seems to be a bit expensive?$300 for the VMware software, and you still have to pay for Windows.

So while we may be able to have a Linux desktop with full Windows functionality sometime towards the end of this year, it does not seem like it can be a reality today. I think it would be interesting to have this specific issue covered in some depth.

Chris Hopp

More on real world implementations: A number of schools in Oregon (which is the home to OSDL) have implemented Linux thin-clients and have even started their own RH/Fedora based distributon called K12LTSP.

Here is info on K12LTSP and Novell interoperability.

Read about K12LTSP's role in a 2002 licensing flap with Microsoft here.

And, finally, a recent post to Slashdot indicates that Novell may be "adopting" the LTSP project (the primary "enhancement" which changes Fedora to K12LTSP).

Can the Cool Guys confirm this rumor?

Cool Guys: Novell is not "taking over" the LTSP project but we are leveraging LTSP in our thin client efforts. There's actually a great blog entry on this subject over at with Jim McQuillan talking about his reaction to the slashdot article and his conversations with Nat since then. In a nutshell we're working on improving LTSP security and local device support as part of our linux desktop development.

Aaron Lewis Dinkin

I am a student at Guilderland High School in Guilderland Center NY. During my Freshman year (9th Grade) of High School I started a "Computer Club." The "Goal" was to promote Computer Technology and OpenSource within the Guilderland [High School] Community. Later, I discovered the K12LTSP (several months after I started the Club).

The school was [and currently still is] using a deprecated Novell server with a ZENworks / NetWare / GroupWise / PCRDist setup... "The Network" has had many "issues" regarding stability and "actuation."

Issues regarding web , email, printing, application serving, and network outages plagued the school [and still do today].

I was getting rather annoyed with this, so I recommended to my Computer Club's "Advisor" the following: "I don't understand why the network is not setup on a UN*X backbone with print, and file serving capabilities; proxy/gateway, and email/internet services accessed through terminals/clients (in this case the Win98 machines)?"

Time passed, and now I am trying to setup an OpenMosix cluster in Computer Club. Currently Novell has acquired Ximian (Yes!), and SuSE Linux (Awesome!!), and just recently, has taken interest in the LTSP (SCORE!!!)...

I own SUSE Linux 9.0 Pro (I just purchased it about two months ago, it's fine, albeit, I am having problems with it on my AMD64 (I am interested in 9.1 Pro)) and I NOW realize WHY SUSE Linux is so popular... This is WHY I am going to setup the Cluster in Computer Club with Gentoo OpenMosix nodes and one "SuSE'd Out!" AMD64 [with SuSE 9.1 PRO]...

I now think that my school finally has hope, an escape, from the instability of Novell (DOS), through Win98; Thank You Novell for accepting Linux into your life and providing a stable future for one of the best things to happen to computers in years... I am hoping that my school will use OpenExchange or one of your other "SuSE'd Up!" NovelLinuxes (Linovell.uX)?? Nove II Linux?? to provide that UN*X backend that I had always dreamt of... Plus more, now I can actually visualize a Linux server in "the Basement" replacing "DUTCH" (Our Current Server) with "TUX", not only providing backend services, but also terminal serving system images to Dumb Clients, ultimately resulting in lowering technology [hardware] expenses, while providing moneys for software and services to make one "SuSE'd Out!!" Server "Kick Ass!"

Thank You So Much Novell for providing the ground and materials needed for my school (and probably other schools as well) to sprout and flourish...

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