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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

Evolution was so temperamental that Halamka couldn't use his computer for anything while Evolution was syncing with Exchange. What's more, Evolution frequently locked up and required forced quits, requiring Halamka to turn to Outlook Web Access to synch with Exchange. Were it not for that workaround, Halamka might not have been able to use e-mail — an untenable situation for someone whose job relies upon it.

The problems Halamka encountered with Linux on the desktop meant he had to build as much as an extra hour into his day for troubleshooting — even after one of his Linux engineers spent 20 hours over the course of one week configuring his machine. (This was not the smooth, out-of-the-box experience he had had with his MacBook.) And although Halamka is an accomplished Unix administrator (he wrote a textbook on Unix at the ripe old age of 19), tinkering with the operating systems took up precious time. "I don't want to spend my day writing command lines," he says.

Workarounds: Halamka couldn't connect to CareGroup's corporate network the first time he tried doing so running RHEL. The OS didn't quickly recognize the wired connection or have the drivers for his flavour of wireless connectivity. One of his Linux engineers told him how to manually activate both the wireless and wired connections by selecting "Network" from the "System Settings" menu and providing a root password. That seemed to solve the problem for the wired connection, but he had to activate the wireless connection each time he wanted to use it.

Conclusion: Halamka desperately wants Linux to work on a laptop because he so admires the open-source philosophy of developers working together to improve computing. But he acknowledges that the OS — at least the RHEL or Fedora versions of it — is not ready for prime time. In fact, he was surprised that running Linux on the desktop was so problematic, even though he knew getting it all to operate properly the first time would be a challenge. "The fact that [Linux] can work most of the time [only] with tinkering — and after a team of PhDs figures out the exact configuration for a specific combination of hardware — does not scale for CIOs with heterogeneous laptop inventories," says Halamka. "I never got to the point where if I had to give a speech, I could open the lid of my laptop, launch my presentation and know it was going to work."

For Linux to become practical and affordable to run on PCs, he adds, hardware manufacturers will have to configure Linux software for specific machines. In part, this is because — according to a conversation he had with Red Hat executives — the company has no plans to support desktops and laptops.

Halamka notes that Lenovo is providing custom Linux configurations for its top-of-the-line T60 machines and that Linux configuration service providers such as EmperorLinux.com will custom configure SUSE Linux to run on Lenovo products for a fee of a few hundred dollars. He says that having one of these companies custom configure the operating system to a specific piece of hardware would prevent some of the problems he ran into and would dramatically reduce the amount of time IT staff spend configuring hardware and software.

As for the specific operating systems Halamka tried, he thought he'd prefer RHEL over Fedora for desktop use at CareGroup because in healthcare, reliability is crucial. Nevertheless, right now it's probably suitable only for limited applications, such as a public kiosk providing Web access through Firefox or use of OpenOffice. As for laptop users, he concluded that even though Fedora was pretty unstable right now, support for new features is as important as reliability. He notes that Fedora is constantly improving because of those frequent updates. "In another year, it may be a full-featured, highly reliable, user-friendly system that supports laptops. In two years, the same may be true of RHEL," he says.

Meanwhile, he's not giving up on his quest for a simple, reliable Linux desktop operating system. Because his first attempts didn't meet his expectations, he plans to test-drive other Linux OSs, including Debian, Novell's SUSE and Ubuntu.

>> For a second opinion, see "Hardware's the Issue"

Making Windows Work

Configuration: Dell D420 sub notebook running Windows XP with Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer and Firefox

What he liked: As the academic year at Harvard Medical School geared up in September, Halamka was relieved to return to a familiar operating system that didn't require an hour of troubleshooting every day. He had no problems accessing his e-mail or any other application while travelling because the Outlook e-mail and calendaring client is specifically made for the Exchange server CareGroup uses — unlike Microsoft's Entourage e-mail client [Entourage was previously mislabelled an Apple product] that Halamka used on his Mac and the open-source Evolution e-mail application.

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