The Great OS Experiment

The Great OS Experiment

A celebrity CIO reviews the desktop operating system contenders in search of the next-generation office computer

The Line on Linux

Configuration: Lenovo X41 laptop loaded with two Red Hat Linux operating systems — Fedora Core 5 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) version WS 4 U3 — so that Halamka could test both. Each system ran the following open-source desktop applications: Firefox Web browser, OpenOffice (version 1.x on RHEL and 2.x on Fedora) and Evolution e-mail with Novell's Ximian Connector for Microsoft Exchange (Connector is an extension to Evolution that functions as a Microsoft Exchange Server client for Linux and Unix desktops and workstations).

What he liked: Contrary to what Microsoft says on its Web site, Linux can be a stable, reliable desktop operating system. But not all varieties of desktop Linux are created equal. Halamka says RHEL in particular lends itself well to corporate computing environments because the infrequent changes Red Hat makes to the OS are well tested and documented. The testing and documentation of changes and upgrades gives corporate IT departments the confidence they need to support and administer Linux on the desktop and to know that it won't be the source of hundreds of furious calls from users to the help desk.

Fedora, on the other hand, is a lot of work to maintain because, unlike RHEL, it's so frequently updated (see "What he disliked", below). But those frequent updates enable support for the latest hardware — for instance, EVDO wireless broadband cards — as well as rapidly evolving applications such as OpenOffice and power management applications.

As for open-source office productivity applications, Halamka fell in love with Firefox. The application didn't crash on him once, and he found it easy to use. He particularly loved the tabbing function that let him open new Webpages without having to open a separate browser window. And he didn't encounter any problems accessing CareGroup's Web-based corporate applications with Firefox, because they're based on open standards. Halamka liked Firefox so much that he made it the default browser on his MacBook and on the new Dell laptop he tested. OpenOffice worked well for word processing, presentations and spreadsheets. In addition, he did not encounter any serious problems working with Microsoft Office documents. Between OpenOffice and Adobe Acrobat, Halamka says he had all the office productivity tools he needed.

What he disliked: Although a stable operating system like Red Hat is easier to manage, it also doesn't support the latest technologies, features and functionality. Sometimes, it doesn't even support tried-and-true technologies like USB drives or basic features like sleep. A potential stumbling block to deployment at CareGroup, Halamka found, is that RHEL doesn't incorporate the drivers that automatically detect networks or support new hardware, such as those wireless broadband cards or the tablet computers clinicians use to access electronic health records and e-prescribing applications.

Neither RHEL nor Fedora could recognize a USB drive when Halamka plugged one into his laptop. Each time he added one, he had to mount it manually by writing a command. Thus, moving 250MB of files from his MacBook to his Lenovo X41 took him two hours. Halamka notes that his Linux engineers, who have been using Fedora on their own computers, were eventually able to get that OS to recognize USB drives after installing the necessary updates.

When Halamka wasn't using his computer, the RHEL OS sucked the life out of its battery or the electrical outlet into which it was plugged because he couldn't put it to sleep. Fedora's sleep feature worked half the time. When it didn't function properly, he had to reboot.

Fedora's major problem, according to Halamka, is that the operating system is in "permanent beta". It's a standard procedure in the development of Fedora for open-source developers to constantly release updates and enhancements and leave it to the user community to test for interoperability with other applications. Consequently, when Halamka downloaded these updates onto his computer, they often caused other applications to crash. He says figuring out which applications would work and which wouldn't after downloading 200MB of updates every few days "was liking spinning a roulette wheel".

On the application side, neither RHEL's nor Fedora's version of the open-source e-mail application Evolution worked well as a client for Microsoft's Exchange server. In two days of trying, Halamka wasn't able to synchronize his Evolution client with CareGroup's Exchange server because Evolution was so unstable. If the process of synchronizing the messages on Halamka's hard drive with the Exchange server was interrupted for any reason (for instance, if the network was slow) the synchronization operation restarted from the beginning.

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