Moving to the Linux Business Desktop, by Marcel Gagne, ISBN: 0131421921

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, November 2004, send e-mail
Published by: Addison Wesley, go to the web site
Requires: N/A
MSRP: $44.99

Marcel Gagné is best known as the author of the Linux Journal's "Cooking with Linux" series, winner of the Readers' Choice Favorite Column award for three straight years. He has written two highly acclaimed Addison Wesley books—Moving to Linux: Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye, and Linux System Administration: A User's Guide. We reviewed Moving to Linux in early 2004 and we liked it a lot. The book we're reviewing here is something different however, and deals not with simply understanding and moving to a new operating system, but more extensively with how to integrate and use the latest Linux desktop in any fully realized business environment. It can be a daunting task, but we continue to like Gagné's approach and the manner is which he organizes the information in his books.

Moving to the Linux Business Desktop is meant to be a complete technical resource for migrating your business PCs to Linux and administering those PCs efficiently. This is also the first book we've seen with in-depth coverage on using Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) thin clients. Moving to the Linux Business Desktop contains 32 chapters and 2 appendices. The book is large at 696 pages and comprehensive in a specialized sort of way and is mainly oriented toward people who have to deploy and use Linux in small, medium and large business environments. There are several chapters including the opening ones on learning Linux basics and about 10 more dealing with word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, the KDE desktop and the Internet which are very well done and invaulable for end users, business managers and IT people alike.

The 32 chapters are organized into three general topics: Getting to Know Linux, Administration & Deployment, and The Linux Business Desktop. Appendix A contains all the information you ever wanted to know about the GNU General Public Licence. Appendix B is a twenty page instruction on Automation & Scripting.

Chapters 1 through 6 (Getting to Know Linux) cover the basics of the Linux operating system, the best ways of sourcing various Linux distributions, installing the operating system on Intel-based PCs, understanding and using all of the main parts of the operating system, customizing the look & feel of Linux, and also contain an excellent, detailed tutorial on the Konqueror file manager built into Linux. Chapters 7 through 23 (Administration & Deployment) cover everything from installing new programs, managing devices and services, simple and complex networking, controlling Linux via the shell or web, singularly important topics such as backup and restoration of data, printing, e-mail, web services, Samba, lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP—which is essentially directory assistance for your networking needs), file sharing, the aforementioned thin clients, file sharing, remote control and of course security. Chapters 23 through 32 (The Linux Business Desktop) get down to the most important aspects of business PCs, covering e-mail clients, organizers, web surfing, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics and artworks, instant messaging and video conferencing.

Learning and using Linux over the past five or six years has been an interesting experience for me. I've seen the operating system evolve and mature to the point where I now believe it's truly possible to move from Windows XP to Linux in 60% or more of private and business environments. The question is . . . why? After all, what's wrong with Windows? In its XP clothing, Windows is comparatively stable, versatile and is even getting somewhat more secure. So what's wrong? Well first and foremost, Windows is far too expensive. Linux is not. Most retail Linux distributions (all of which are also available via free download) are at least as stable as XP. Linux licensing and its use on multiple computers on your network won't demolish your software budget; Windows XP licensing costs will give you nightmares. Windows productivity software will, over the course of any four or five year period, cost tens of thousands of dollars. The equivalent on Linux will cost you little more than it costs for your IT people to deploy it, which is to say only the actual cost of your IT people. I could go on. The point is that as North American, western European and Pacific Rim business climates have changed and continue to change (in all sectors, from retail to manufacturing to service industries) in order to compete with ever-increasing competition from China, India and elsewhere, the cost of PC operating systems and compatible productivity applications have become a very sensitive budget issue. Every cost saving realized by switching from Windows to Linux is a saving which smart companies can put toward the development of better products & services research, better technical support, better product testing, better marketing and so on.

Forrester Research, in its 2004 report titled The Linux Tipping Point makes the enterprise situation quite clear: "Linux brings seductive Intel economics into the Unix heart of the datacenter. To avoid the chaos of unbridled Linux growth, CIOs must lead a shift to managed Linux deployment. The payoff? A fast track to Organic IT." In the Forrester study, 72% of respondents expected to use more Linux in 2004. About a quarter are replacing Windows servers with Linux. The research also predicts that Linux adoption will explode in every datacenter, challenging CIOs to keep proliferation under control. Of course it's completely true that carefully managing the deployment of any business system gives both datacenter pros and application teams the tools and processes to be successful. Forrester Research is by no means kicking Windows to the curb however; they'd be nuts to suggest such a thing. Recoding an application? Don't overlook Microsoft.

Forrester Research also hastens to point out in their study that business means business. Some of us might think of business as our plumbing supply operation or property management office or furniture store. Forrester certainly agrees but looks much more expansively at everything from independent software developers to massive datacenters and corporate installations using huge computing installations (known in the industry as "big iron"). As long as proprietary Unix is almost completely dead, and as long as big iron lives on, Linux remains the best and most openly versatile operating system available. Forrester is also very clear on the fact that software developers of all kinds are smart to be developing for Linux. The only thing which hurts Linux business use is enterprise support—that is, support for network wide desktop and server deployment. Enterprise support problems stall Linux deployment about 45% of the time, according to Forrester Research. This book will tell you how to do it properly, but it should give you pause to ask if you've got the IT people in place willing to gain a thorough understanding of all the issues before plunging blindly ahead.

There isn't a bad chapter in the book. But I think chapters 20 and 21 dealing with thin clients, although quite well done, are of little use in this day and age of widely deployed Pentium III & 4 computers. The whole point of thin clients is to keep most of the Linux processing power and hardware demands at the server end of the network, rather than on some of the older hardware still sitting on desktops. It's an alternative for companies suffering under the burden of outdated PCs. Frankly, we're really tired of hearing about these kinds of companies. If you want to move into the most effective kind of computing to help your business, you've got to buy new hardware. If you're not yet considering PC hardware acquisition costs as part of your annual budgeting, you're not going to be able to afford to make a change when you reach the point where you no longer have a choice. Even Linux may not be able to help the worst of the cheapskates and the short-sighted in the business community. Thin client support demonstrates Linux's versatility no doubt, and if you're willing to invest the time needed to set up thin clients there's a definite pay off. Just be warned that thin clients aren't long term solutions unless you've got particularly specialized needs.

Moving to the Linux Business Desktop is an enthusiast's reference work, a detailed description of all the primary business issues addressed by Linux, and a tutorial on the best ways of converting your business desktops and servers to Linux while providing all of the top tier productivity your people need to do their work. But there are a lot of businesses which Linux can't touch mainly because those businesses require proprietary software which developers have yet to port over to Linux. A good example of this is the property management business. Yardi Systems, which develops Voyager, Gemini and other software which specifically address the needs of residential and commercial property management, has yet to begin porting anything to Linux. The reason is simple: it costs a lot of money and there just aren't enough potential clients yet, making the porting process a big money loser. That's bad news for property management companies suffering under ever-decreasing profit margins. They could use the cost savings inherent in Linux. What else do we want? Let's see now—how about Quickbooks for Linux, AccPac for Linux, AutoCAD for Linux, InDesign for Linux, Photoshop for Linux and medical/dental office management software for Linux which is browser-compatible enough to accommodate secure insurance billing? There's more, but you get the idea. One of these days, somebody (or several sombodies) is/are going to wake up and start moving stuff en masse to Linux. The process is slow now, but our best guess is that it's going to accelerate over the next three years in particular. We'll see.

For now, there's a comprehensive list of businesses and products which can be easily, efficiently and productively converted to Linux. If you're in the right business sector, the possibilities are terrific and Moving to the Linux Business Desktop is one of the best guides to help you make the leap.

Cons: Chapters 27, 28, 29 and 30 deal with word processing, spreadsheets and other primary office computer uses. Unfortunately, there's just not enough of this in the book. Document conversion problems, migration of large numbers of documents, workgroup software and contact management software are dealt with only briefly. You're going to need another book.

Pros: If you've been thinking about converting all or part of your business operation to Linux, Moving to the Linux Business Desktop is a must-read for you, and if you run a bigger company, your IT staff. Gagné's topic organization and writing style move you through important subjects quickly and efficiently, providing clear explanations and a thorough understanding of the details you need to know in order to use Linux effectively. This is book number two by Gagné that we've reviewed enthusiastically and we're now starting to look very closely at Linux for our own offices. It's a tempting prospect. Gagné places significant focus on the licencing cost savings which can be derived from moving to Linux and that advantage will not be lost on anyone who reads the book. Is it time to move to Linux? Read this book first. Highly recommended.

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