posted by Anton Klotz on Thu 18th Jan 2007 18:16 UTC

"Workstations, Page 2/2"
What kind of consequences does it have for the development and usage of operating systems?

We can draw a very sharp line between the server OS and the desktop OS. Both systems have completely different demands. From the view of user the server OS is visible in his Citrix client window as an application. In fact it is comparable with a WebOS, which are running in a browser window. Server OS must be stable, reliable and scalable. It must run on big servers, handle lot of load and users, support virtualization, be fault-tolerant and self-healing. The windows manager must be simple, but still effective enough, to help handling several open windows and terminals in a session with a resolution and color depth as small as possible to minimize the network traffic, but still large enough to display all relevant data.

There are already server-only OS, like zOS, VMS or OS/400, but our definition would declare also AIX, HP-UX, Solaris and all BSDs as server OS (Note: I don't mention Linux here, it is a special case). There are lot of minimalistic window-managers and desktop environments available (CDE, FVWM, WindowMaker), which comply with the requirements described above. Which leads us to the question, which software is required for a serverOS? Obviously programs for the work on the project data are needed. Then a development environment with a tool chain to be able to write programs for the OS. A web-browser with PDF-plugin and an IMAP-based email program for simple communication. What software is not required for it? No advanced communication software, no multimedia programs, no office-software, no bloated desktop environments like KDE or GNOME, no 3D-acceleration, no search software, nothing what might disturb the user or the computer system from work. The ideal case would be, if the home directory of the user would stay empty, all the project data are stored in project directories in versioning systems, accessible for other project users.

On the other hand the desktop or notebook OS must have every feature which helps the engineer to organize his work and should help him to be able to communicate with every possible client and manage all his data. He should be able to read and write every document format and be able to access every website. International customers might send him documents in every possible format and he cannot reject it, with an excuse that's because his desktop OS does not have an application, which is able to read it. The stability and reliability do not play a very important role. If the system crashes, it is still possible to connect to the Citrix session and continue working. Currently there are only 3 OSes which to some degree support these demands: Windows, MacOSX and Linux.

By using Windows the chance to have all the programs for communication like VoIP, IM, video-conferencing is higher than on other platforms. Windows-based application like Microsoft Office are used by most customers and non-technical departments in the company. OpenOffice is available for Windows as well, in case that somebody is sending ODF data around. It is sad, but there are still lot of web-forms, which are used in Intranets and which work only with Internet Explorer. For group-ware functionality Exchange-Outlook is still the most popular combination. Multimedia plugins and codecs for all relevant formats are available. Windows Vista has integrated search, which helps to find documents and emails on the basis of different criteria, for earlier Windows version applications like LookOut or Google Toolbar can be used. Windows supports Unicode and lot of different char-sets, which is also important, since customer from Eastern Europa or Asia might use different char-set on their web-page or in the email.

MacOSX is also able to read and write most of the popular formats. It has its problems with multi-platform groupware-functionality and while VoIP and text-messaging with different IMs is possible, video-conferencing with a Windows user might become a bigger problem. Not every web-page can be viewed with Safari and if Microsoft removes VBA-functionality from its next Office for Mac software version, all the Excel tables with Macros cease to work. MacOSX has very advanced searching capabilities and is good suited for writing of documentation, especially because of the build-in PDF creator, so the documents can be viewed on all platforms, even on server OSes.

Linux can be used as server and as desktop OS. While optimized distributions make good shape on server, the Linux desktop still has a long way to go to become as helpful for the engineer as Windows. All the arguments, which are valid for MacOSX, are valid for Linux even more. Even if the company is pure open source and uses only standardized document formats and communication paths, the customers might not and there must always be a way to be able to read everything, what a customer might send. Group-ware solutions on Linux are available, but the Exchange support is fluky, MSOffice-Macros might sometimes work with OpenOffice most of the time they do not, I'm not aware on any cross-platform videoconference software which is available for Linux. Codecs and plugins are often not available as well. Recently Linux also got a search-engine. But the advantage of Linux is, that it is possible use the notebook as development machine and run the code on Linux server, without recompilation. It is possible to demonstrate software and provide training on the notebook, without having connection to the server.

Conclusion

Due to the change of the working environment workstations are not the right tool to do the job anymore. They are too expensive, can be used only by single user, the data amount is too large to be downloaded and processed. Better solution is to leave the data on server and send them through fast network on computing grid. As control station either a terminal or a notebook can be used. Notebooks offer better flexibility as it can be used for work from home or during traveling. ServerOS should not be optimized for desktop usage but concentrate on such tasks like reliability, stability, scalability. Only lightweight windows managers should be used to save the bandwidth and processing power. The OS on the notebook must be able to help the engineer to communicate, manage his data and organize his work. Windows is currently the most advanced OS for these tasks, but Linux's advantage is, that it is flexible enough to be used as serverOS and on desktop.

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