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Linux-based desktops work despite Windows app prevalence

With so many devices already based on Linux -- Android devices and Chromebooks, to name a few -- it makes sense for some companies to consider virtual and cloud-hosted Linux desktops. Windows applications are a hurdle, however.

Perhaps the key to understanding Linux's DaaS potential is to look outside the world of desktops to the multi-device universe, where the form factor and its accompanying OS no longer reign supreme.

Many users care only about the services that keep them connected and productive. They want those services delivered when and where they need them. They don't care if they're using their Apple iPads, Android phones, MacBook Pros, or even Windows or Linux-based desktops. They expect services to be available on each device, with data synced and accessible at all times. Oh, and they want their experiences to be comparable from one device to the next.

That's one of the problems that desktop as a service (DaaS) helps to solve. Hosting desktops and applications in the cloud -- regardless of the operating system they're based on -- can help users access the information they need from just about anywhere.

As users shift away from their desktops and toward mobile devices and the cloud, they need browsers, Web-enabled apps and cloud services that render the platform and OS inconsequential. We are far from cloud-topia, but we're a heck of a lot closer than we were five years ago. The move to HTML5, more sophisticated browsers and faster Internet connections in conjunction with advances in virtualization and cloud computing make the possibility of a platform-agnostic universe more of a reality every day.

Google's Chromebook is the inevitable conclusion to this desktop dystopia. It's browser-based, so all it needs is a reliable Internet connection and access to cloud services. The fact that Chromebook is built on Linux is inconsequential to most users. With the right technology, most workers are ready and willing to make the leap -- freed from device and OS constraints -- to get to what's most important: the services and data themselves.

In fact, users have adopted Linux in droves, not just with Chromebooks, but also in the varied range of Android smartphones and tablets, as well as Kindle e-readers. Linux is also widely implemented on the world's servers and super computers. That's not to suggest organizations everywhere are ready to jump into the Linux waters, but the wide Linux adoption and the paradigm switch away from OS-centric thinking does suggest that the potential is there for a Linux upset. When provided with the right tools, users can be quite adaptable to change.

The Windows application challenge

Despite the unprecedented migration toward mobility and the cloud, Windows-based applications remain an enterprise mainstay. When the subject of Linux-based desktops arises, Linux foes are quick to list the plethora of Windows applications that are driving the world of business, and they are right.

Windows applications aren't going away any time soon, and any organization considering a migration from Windows to Linux should think carefully about their application needs.

A number of applications provide Linux versions, however. For example, the Firefox and Chrome browsers offer Linux options, although those versions often target specific Linux distributions (distros). The Linux system requirements for the Chrome browser include only certain versions of Ubuntu, Debian, OpenSUSE and Fedora. You can try it on other distros, but you might run into unexpected results.

On the other hand, some Linux distros offer alternatives to Microsoft products. Ubuntu Server, for instance, provides a full complement of server utilities for managing security, availability and client systems, including an alternative to Microsoft Exchange. In addition, some Linux distros offer compatibility with Microsoft's Active Directory, SharePoint Server and Exchange Server, allowing an organization to integrate Linux gradually into its existing infrastructures.

Linux users can also run such programs as OpenOffice or LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office, or Gimp instead of Adobe Photoshop. For some, these free alternatives are enough to stay productive, despite having to get used to new tools. Others, however, require the complete feature sets that Office, Photoshop or other Windows applications provide. Compatibility issues can also make it difficult to work with any application other than the Windows version.

Making the leap

All is not lost, however. Tools such as CrossOver and Wine make it possible to run many Windows applications within containers running on Linux (or OS X, if you're so inclined). Such utilities don't support all applications, however. For example, CrossOver, which is based on open-source Wine, supports Microsoft Office 97 through Office 2010, but not Office 2013 or Office 365. You can also run a number of Photoshop editions and versions, but again, not all. For instance, Photoshop CS2 and CS3 are known not to work in CrossOver.

Whether you'll be able to make a container such as Wine or CrossOver work -- and whether it will work in a virtual or hosted Linux-based desktop -- will of course depend on your circumstances. But at least such options provide a viable alternative to deal with the Windows application dilemma. Be aware, however, that running a Windows application this way is not always a seamless process, so do some serious testing before committing to this strategy.

Also know that containers are geared toward popular commercial products, not proprietary applications. Most custom apps are and continue to be built with Windows in mind, and those apps will likely be around for quite some time. That said, organizations can also turn to options such as Citrix XenApp to deliver the applications virtually to the various devices.

Does this drawing together of forces translate to the ideal timing for a Linux takeover? Perhaps. But Windows is an entrenched system implemented across the globe and is a matter of habit for a great number of users. In addition, the mobile-cloud movement has yet to show its full hand; Chromebook could turn out to be just the beginning.

We might see a rush of Linux thin clients before long, but that doesn't translate to Linux DaaS. Even DaaS itself might become obsolete as the desktop sails into the virtual sunset. Like many aspects of technology, we'll just have to wait and see.

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