Why you should consider cloud-hosted Linux desktops

A switch to cloud-hosted Linux-based desktops could help solve Windows licensing problems. Workers transitioned to smartphones and tablets; they can get used to Linux too.

With all the licensing troubles that can come with hosting Windows desktops in the cloud, some companies -- and vendors -- are looking to Linux operating systems instead.

VMware plans to offer a Horizon View client for Linux, and Horizon DaaS, formerly Desktone, has had a hosted Linux option for years. Citrix is planning a similar strategy for XenDesktop and XenApp with Linux Virtual Apps and Desktops. These two big-name virtualization vendors putting attention on Linux shines a spotlight on the OS.

Desktop as a service (DaaS) has been making its own waves in the cloud universe, delivering desktop services to just about any device in any location that has a reasonable Internet connection. With its multi-tenancy, shared-services architecture, DaaS can provide a centrally managed desktop platform to a wide range of users, without heavy investments in hardware and other upfront costs.

A monthly subscription fee pays not only for delivering virtual desktops, but also for all the behind-the-scenes patching, updating and ongoing maintenance needed to keep everything running. Most DaaS providers also offer on-demand scalability and built-in disaster recovery, along with other services.

DaaS comes with its own challenges, but it has been promising enough that vendors such as VMware and Citrix have taken a lead in the movement, and now they plan to support hosted Linux desktops. The reasons that VMware and Citrix finally ceded to customer requests for hosted Linux desktops are unclear, but certainly these companies would not be making such a move without a look to the future. And an assessment of the current Windows-heavy environment might be reason enough for the Linux addition.

The Windows experience

Windows licensing is notoriously complex and pricey, particularly where DaaS is concerned. DaaS providers must go the bring-your-own-license route -- where customers license the software themselves -- or offer a Windows desktop lookalike based on a skinned version of Windows Server. In addition, providers can't run multiple Windows virtual machines (VMs) on a single host unless they all belong to the same customer, defeating much of the shared-services advantage that cloud computing provides.

Microsoft makes the DaaS licensing process a bit easier for large companies because big shops can afford dedicated servers to host their VMs. In addition, the Software Assurance (SA) program appears to have loosened up its virtualization reigns, although the waters are still being tested on the DaaS front. Of course, this applies only to those organizations that can afford and want SA.

Linux, on the other hand, is free. No licensing agreements, license management or surprise vendor audits checking for misused software. Linux code is open source and requires no contractual obligation. That said, if it were simply a matter of paying less, many companies would have made the switch long ago; there's more at stake than a licensing agreement. Before an organization drives off with a shiny new Linux desktop, it had better check under the hood and kick a few tires.

The Linux experience

The Linux desktop continues to fight the perception that it is a complex beast suited only to the tech-savvy and infinitely patient.

In part, this perception is fueled by the variety of available Linux distributions (distros) with such names as SUSE, Ubuntu and Red Hat. All of them run the Linux kernel, but add their own desktop flavors. To complicate matters, heated debates about which distro to adopt and which ones to avoid are common in the Linux world. There's no clear standard emerging and no one distro claims victory.

Those in the anti-Linux camp are quick to point out that Windows editions are generally consistent from one to the next, come pre-installed on PCs and laptops, and don't require nearly as much tinkering to get up and running. Windows also has a large pool of skilled administrators and a wide community of support. Linux naysayers also point out that virtualizing the OS and establishing remote connections only adds to the complexities.

Delivering cloud-hosted Linux desktops addresses many of these issues, however. The service provider must contend with selecting the distro, setting it up and maintaining its environment. They must also ensure that users can connect and use their desktops as efficiently as they can in hosted Windows deployments. The subscribing organization doesn't need the in-house expertise to implement Linux desktops, physical or virtual.

Facing a new interface

But there is still the issue of the user interface. The major Linux versions have improved significantly in terms of usability, and they now provide a Windows-like look and feel, but Linux is still a different OS and is not what most workers are used to.

Employees will be able to transition eventually, however, just as they did from Windows 7 to Windows 8. In fact, some would argue that moving from Windows 7 to one of the more popular Linux distros is easier than going from Windows 7 to 8. But the differences between Windows and Linux can still require training and support resources. In both cases, users have to shift the way they work, and such transitions can take their toll.

Still, users transition to new systems all the time. Just look at the proliferation of mobile devices in the workplace. Perhaps the bigger concern for an organization is the fact that Linux desktops have not been widely adopted and may never be. An organization might not want to invest training and support resources into a system that never catches on, only to face a switch back to Windows down the road.

On the other hand, organizations such as the London Stock Exchange, U.S. Department of Defense and Google all use Linux desktops, so perhaps they'll catch on after all.

One issue organizations might still have to contend with, however, is hardware support. Many DaaS providers make it possible for customers to extend their networks into the DaaS environment to provide access to corporate resources. Organizations could run into hardware compatibility issues with such devices as printers or advanced keyboards. But even in this area, Linux has made great strides.

Next Steps

NoMachine lets you deliver remote Mac, Linux and Windows desktops

Comparing XenDesktop and View

Niboxx buys VERDE, takes on SDDC market

Dig Deeper on Virtual desktop infrastructure and architecture