posted by Edward H. Trager on Mon 1st Dec 2003 07:38 UTC
IconI work in a genetics research laboratory at an academic institution. Recently, a colleague of mine was having a lot of trouble with his Windows 2000 workstation. I took a look at it and determined that the ethernet card built onto the motherboard had failed, and so bought a new ethernet card to plug into an available PCI slot.

SuSE But, for whatever reasons, Windows continued to have enormous difficulty dealing with the failed onboard ethernet card. Even after a clean reinstallation of Windows, we continued to experience enormous problems with the ethernet connection.

But that wasn't all. The external USB-pluggable Hewlett Packard DVD burner which he needed for saving backups of large genetics data sets appeared to constantly conflict with the built-in CD burner. And, just to add insult to injury, Window's printer management dialog kept hanging so I couldn't configure the printers!

After I and other colleagues had wasted much time trying to configure and re-configure Windows, I finally decided that I would try installing our new copy of SuSE 9.0 on this machine. We had bought SuSE 9.0 for a new server installation. I had not originally contemplated installing Linux on my colleague's desktop workstation because (1) he is a biologist who had never used (and possibly not even heard of) Linux or any *nix-based operating system before, and (2) he needed access to genetics programs like Sequencher (used for sequence analysis) which were Windows-only and might not work under Wine/CrossOver Office. But we agreed that having a computer that worked --regardless of operating system-- would be much better than one that did not work! So the die was cast and I installed SuSE 9.0 alongside Windows 2000 in a dual-boot configuration.

Now here's the good part of the story: First, SuSE's installer autodetected all of the hardware perfectly. It automatically configured the ethernet card in the PCI slot for DHCP and just ignored the bad card on the motherboard!

Even better than this was that the very first time I stuck a blank DVD in the DVD burner, KDE's K3B CD burning program came up right away and we were able to burn a DVD of all of his genetic data by just dragging and dropping directories into K3B! There was no fussing with conflicting drivers as had been the case with Windows. It just worked! End of story. Configuring network printers was also flawless.

For access to Windows programs, I installed Codeweaver's Crossover Office 2.1.0 which not only runs Word, Powerpoint, Excel, and Photoshop quickly and as far as I can tell flawlessly, but importantly also allowed the genetics program Sequencher to run. While of course it would be ideal see programs like Photoshop ported to a native Linux versions, until that happens Wine and Crossover Office are like a dream come true --especially when an unsupported Windows application works fine, as was the case here.

I have learned several things from this experience. First, there has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about whether Linux is "ready" for the desktop. That's a bit of a vague question in my mind. It would be better to rephrase the question: For what groups of users is Linux now ready to cater to on the desktop? It is now clear to me that the audience of potential Linux desktop users is much broader than I formerly imagined. When I think about the minimum amount that one now has to learn in order to start using Linux on the desktop (i.e., 1. Click once in KDE instead of twice, 2. The directory tree starts with "/" instead of the "C:" drive, 3. Learn what "rwxr-xr-x" means, and 4. Learn a few *nix commands like "cd" and "ls -l" so that one can see the permissions flags on files), it is clear that any competent employee of an organization who uses a computer can do this.

On the other hand, while the barrier to Linux usage by employees is arguably quite low, the real barrier is more likely that management and system administrators in many organizations may not yet have a clue about how to deploy Linux effectively. A clear prerequisite is having sysadmins who understand Linux or other *nix operating systems. For example, while this desktop installation of SuSE 9.0 proceeded flawlessly --and indeed much better than I anticipated would be the case with some failing hardware in the mix-- the installation of Crossover Office required a trivial bit of additional manual setup that certainly could have stumped Windows sysadmins who were new to Linux (Crossover installs without issue on SuSE 9.0, but application icons do not show up on the user's desktop). Solving the nuts and bolts of minor installation issues is however just a small part of the equation. A more important aspect is the realization that tools like Crossover Office exist and may have a number of advantages (speed, cost, ...) over alternative solutions like VMWare for organizations that are looking for practical ways to deploy Linux on a wider scale than they have previously.

About the Author
Ed Trager is a bioinformatics programmer at the W. K. Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA.

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