Windows vs. Linux vs. OS X: CIO John Halamka Tests Ubuntu

As part of his ongoing effort to find a secure, stable, user-friendly alternative to the Windows desktop operating system, CareGroup CIO John Halamka got to know Ubuntu.

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As intuitive as Ubuntu is, it still requires some of the troubleshooting that comes with using a Linux-based machine. For example, when Halamka wanted to install a WAN wireless card from Cingular so that he could surf the Web using the cell phone network instead of Wi-Fi, he had to figure out how to install the card himself because the card’s installation CD was made for Windows users. By searching online, he cobbled together information on how to configure the WAN card to Ubuntu from three different websites:, mybroadband and net42. All this experimentation, which he would have had to do for any Linux distribution, took him two hours.

The wireless WAN access wasn’t the only feature Halamka had to deal with on his own. He also had to configure Ubuntu to his Dell D420’s wide screen. From online research, he learned that supporting his Dell’s higher screen resolution required a special Intel driver. He identified the necessary driver in the Synaptic Package Management System, and Ubuntu installed it for him. Configuring the OS to his screen isn’t so much a workaround. It’s more an example of what a user would need to do to get Ubuntu running correctly on a Dell D420. Fortunately, it was a lot easier to do than getting the Novatel Wireless HSDPA modem that’s built into his Dell working with the cell phone network.

The only other real workaround Halamka encountered was having to work tethered when he needed to access highly secure applications on CareGroup’s network, since he couldn’t access them over the company’s secure wireless network.

<< What He Disliked    |   Second Opinion >>

Second Opinion: “A Desktop Minority in a Windows-Centric World”

The Linux expert who commented on Halamka’s experiences with Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora and SUSE weighs in on the CIO’s month with Ubuntu.

By David Torre

One of the key issues IT managers have with Linux is whether it will be supported in the long-term. Ubuntu may be totally free or commercially supported. The community typically offers two versions of the operating system: a cutting edge version and a stable or “long term support (LTS)”version. Cutting edge versions are supported for at least 18 months. LTS versions are supported for up to three years on desktops and five years on servers. Unlike the Red Hat and Fedora projects, which are completely separate, Ubuntu is developed under one roof and may be used at no cost or with full commercial support from Canonical Global Support Services.

The frustrations Halamka articulated with the HSDPA modem and Evolution are indicative of the fact that Ubuntu is a desktop minority in a Windows-centric world. I have the exact same Dell D420 as Halamka, so I certainly sympathize with the annoyances he encountered. However, this overall trend is changing as the Apple Mac becomes more prominent in corporate environments, and larger companies such as Dell begin to support Linux on desktop systems.

John Halmka’s experience reflects the reality that the sweet spot in OS-selection may simply refer to choosing the right tool for the job. The ideology of a single-OS network is perhaps an overzealous approach, as large-scale IT environments such as CareGroup are complex and inherently heterogeneous.

David Torre is the founder and CTO of open-source consultancy Atomic Fission.

<< Workarounds    |   Conclusion >>


At the end of his month using Ubuntu, Halamka had to take stock of more than just his intense, 30-day computing experience with the community-driven OS. He also had to look back on his previous affairs with the other five operating systems he tested and determine his personal and enterprise desktop plans moving forward.

“As a Prius-driving vegan environmentalist physician trained in county hospitals to serve the under-served, the open-source and free-software movements appeal to me,“ says Halamka. “But as a corporate officer responsible for the desktop productivity of 40,000 people at CareGroup and Harvard Medical School, I like the enterprise management approach taken by Novell/SUSE. While I appreciate Debian’s very philosophically pure Linux implementation, my staff and I need a more balanced approach, such as the ones offered by Ubuntu and SUSE.”

Needless to say, Halamka has decided to ditch Windows on his Dell laptop, the machine he uses for work. He’s going to continue to run Ubuntu instead. Even though Ubuntu retains some characteristics of a Linux development project, it’s nothing an MIT-trained Unix expert like Halamka can’t handle. It also proved to be a stable, reliable, secure, user-friendly system for the CIO’s day-to-day tasks. He’ll continue to work around Evolution’s idiosyncrasies by accessing his e-mail through Outlook Web Access when he’s waiting for the client version of the e-mail program to launch. Yes, he’s that fed up with Windows.

Windows XP may also get wiped off CareGroup’s thin clients and public kiosks that require locked-down central enterprise management. Halamka has asked his desktop staff to consider SUSE as a cost-savings and security measure. According to Halamka, CareGroup currently owns hundreds of thin clients and more than 1,000 public kiosk workstations.

Windows XP will survive where it’s currently deployed in support of hundreds of users at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who require specialized, Windows-based, data-intensive, analytical applications. Halamka says he won’t upgrade those users to Windows Vista until he’s ready to refresh their hardware as part of his five-year desktop hardware lifecycle program.

Macs will also continue to have a place in Halamka’s heart and in his enterprise. He’s been using a MacBook at home since the summer of 2006, and his IT group will continue to provide better support for the designers and researchers who use Macs.

Halamka’s plans to support three different desktop operating systems may sound crazy. After all, the decision flies in the face of standardization, which seeks to decrease costs and complexity. But deploying different operating systems makes sense for the enterprise his IT group is supporting.

“Hospitals and academic medical centers and universities are like the United Nations,” he says. Just as you can’t force all the diplomats at the UN to speak English, Halamka can’t force all of his users to use the same OS. He realizes they have different computing needs and some, such as the researchers at the medical school, have their own grant money that they use to purchase whatever computers they want.

The “multicultural” computing environment that CareGroup and Harvard Medical School maintain may become more common as Linux-based operating systems improve and as IT departments bump up against tech-savvy users who increasingly bring their personal devices into the workplace. Standardization may one day become a relic of the corporate IT’s crusty past.

“A balanced approach of Windows for the niche business application user, Macs for the graphic artists/researchers, SUSE for enterprise kiosks/thin clients, and Ubuntu for power users seems like the sweet spot for 2008,” says Halamka. “I’ll continue to watch the marketplace evolve and report on my progress. For now, the only devices I’ll be carrying are a Dell D420 with Ubuntu Feisty Fawn and a BlackBerry 8707H e-mail device.”

<< Second Opinion |   

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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