Windows vs. Linux vs. OS X

CIO John Halamka reviews the desktop operating system contenders in search of the next-generation office computer.


John Halamka has a penchant for experiments with new

technologies. In 2004, the now 44-year-old CIO of the Harvard Medical School and CareGroup, which runs the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who is also a practicing emergency room physician, was one of the first people to have an RFID chip containing a link to his medical records implanted in his body (it's near his right triceps.) Next April, he and Harvard geneticist George Church will become the first humans to have their DNA sequenced and their full genetic makeup posted on the Web.


Halamka Tests Ubuntu

Halamka Tests SUSE

But as a health-care administrator, he's not solely interested in testing the cutting-edge, Orwellian technologies that make headlines. The PCs inside the hospital have to work too. So when Halamka's laptop running Windows XP interrupted several presentations with inopportune antivirus and application updates, he decided his next big initiative would be to determine which desktop operating system—Windows XP, Apple's OS X or Linux—is the most secure, most reliable and easiest to use in a corporate environment.

For three months, Halamka ditched his Windows laptop. He replaced it first with a MacBook running OS X. Then he spent a month using a Lenovo ThinkPad X41 running a dual-boot configuration of Red Hat Enterprise Linux Workstation and Red Hat Fedora Core. Finally, he took up a Dell D420 subnotebook running Microsoft's Windows XP. After evaluating all three to determine which worked best for him, he plans to begin testing his preferred setup with users, most of whose desktops currently run Windows.

Halamka judged the three operating systems according to a variety of criteria including their performance, user interfaces and enterprise management capabilities, such as the ability to configure applications, easily organize file systems, and establish granular security control. We followed Halamka's progress, and now we have his conclusions. We've also ask three other experts to take a look at Halamka's findings and add their own insights.

Introduction (Part 2) >>

Introduction (Part 2)

Halamka admits to a bias against Microsoft: He thinks the

complexity of the Office product suite hampers its performance and makes it more vulnerable to viruses and spyware. Halamka says that at a dinner with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in 2004, he told Ballmer that he doesn't use 80 percent of the features in Office and suggested that Microsoft develop a simpler, more secure and reliable product (Ballmer's response, he says was to cite statistics that indicated lots of users like 95 percent of Office's features). Halamka is also skeptical of Microsoft's future in creating simpler, more reliable products, given Bill Gate's upcoming retirement and the company's appointment of Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie to succeed Gates as chief software architect. (See our story "Beyond Vista" for more on Microsoft's future goals.) "Ray is brilliant, but his two products, Lotus Notes and Groove Networks, are both huge systems that taxed networks. So what's the likelihood of Microsoft coming up with a simple, reliable product suite? Pretty low," Halamka says. Meanwhile, Halamka notes the rise of Google and Linux as credible challengers to Microsoft's dominance and Apple's adoption of Intel chips as a way to boost the performance of its products and enhance their potential to be used in a corporate environment.

Few companies are seeking alternatives to the Microsoft desktop, according to Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, an IT research company based in Wayland, Mass. "People are risk averse. They don't like to try new things. It's inertia that holds Microsoft in place," he says.

Even organizations that are seriously investigating Linux and Apple tend to keep their evaluations on the QT, according to Rob Enderle, an IT analyst. Enderle says that public companies don't like to publicize their experiments because if their attempt to switch from one operating system to another fails, they want to be able to quickly and quietly sweep the project under the rug—lest they draw negative attention or jeopardize their relationships with existing vendors.

Halamka tested the operating systems himself before testing them with users because he wanted to know firsthand what problems users might encounter and get a sense of whether his IT department will be able to easily and cost effectively maintain the platform. He conducted the experiment before the release of Apple's Leopard and Microsoft's Vista operating systems for two reasons: He had the time in his schedule to learn the nuances of the different operating systems, and he prefers testing established, stable technologies rather than new releases.

"Being a CIO in 2006 is a lot harder than it was two years ago," says Halamka. Users don't tolerate even three minutes of downtime, he says, and IT budgets aren't growing with users' demand for bandwidth and storage. "CIOs who are budget constrained have to ask themselves if their organizations could save a couple hundred thousand dollars a year by using an open-source product that's almost like Microsoft office," he says. "This is about making sure industry can do what it needs to do better, faster, cheaper and more reliably."

<< Introduction    |   On to the reviews: Mac OS X: Looking Better for Business >>

Mac OS X: Looking Better for Business

Configuration: Intel-based MacBook running OS X with Apple's Safari Web browser, Microsoft's Entourage e-mail application, Apple's Pages 2 desktop publishing system for word processing and Apple's Keynote presentation application.


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What he liked: Like many CIOs, Halamka was predisposed to think that Apple computers aren't enterprise class. However, he learned during his month using the MacBook that the Apple Remote Desktop management system offers many of the features IT departments would need to roll out a fleet of Macs enterprisewide, including tools for configuring applications, controlling what software is installed on desktops and applying upgrades. He also learned from some friends who are Mac power users how to tweak the Mac's underlying file structure—something desktop administrators will have to know to support users. (Apple deliberately hides the complexity of its file structure from users so that they don't have to spend time administrating their computers and organizing their files.)

Another characteristic of the MacBook that helps with IT support and administration is its reliability. Halamka prized the fact that his MacBook didn't crash or freeze once during the month he used it. And his work was never interrupted by automatic antivirus or antispyware updates—a frequent annoyance with Windows.

Because Halamka travels an average of four days each month, remote e-mail access is of paramount importance to him, as it is to any other frequent flier. He had easy access to his Entourage e-mail during the eight days he traveled while using the MacBook once his IT department made a small change to CareGroup's firewall. Because Entourage uses the public Internet and the WebDAV protocol for online collaboration and file management, Halamka didn't need a separate VPN log-in to get his e-mail (messages are encrypted using SSL).

Access to all internally developed Web-based software using his Safari browser was also problem-free because his IT group builds all homegrown applications to work with any browser. And when he was on the go, OS X switched flawlessly from one wireless network to another, which he thinks makes the MacBook a great tool for mobile knowledge workers. The MacBook never skipped a beat as he went from a meeting at Harvard (which uses the WPA/PEAP wireless network) to a meeting at CareGroup (which uses EAP-FAST client) to an informal meeting at Starbucks (which uses a public network).

In addition to his CIO duties, Halamka is involved in a number of extracurricular IT-related initiatives (including serving as chairman of the national Healthcare IT Standards Panel). As part of his work, he gives 150 lectures or presentations each year. Thus, he needs an effective tool for creating presentations. He found what he needed in Keynote, which he finds refreshingly simple compared with PowerPoint.

Keynote doesn't offer all the special effects for which PowerPoint is famous. Consequently, Halamka found the application forced him to focus more on his message and the points he wanted to make on each slide rather than on whether he wanted a sound to accompany each slide change. This is not to say that Halamka's presentations were boring, or text-heavy. Macs are known for their multimedia capabilities, and he took advantage of these, incorporating digital audio and video into a lecture he gave on mushroom poisoning.

Finally, as a power user of search, Halamka grew fond of Spotlight, the search function on the MacBook that indexes and searches for all content on the 80GB hard drive. It even searches and indexes Entourage e-mail, which is stored on the hard drive.

<< Introduction (Part 2)    |   Mac OS X: Looking Better for Business - Dislikes >>

What he disliked: In April, Apple announced its support for the

Windows operating system on its machines. The move was designed to convert Windows users to stylish Mac hardware. Considering so many businesses are Microsoft shops, IT industry observers thought Apple's support of Windows might win over some corporate customers. But Halamka found running Windows on his MacBook "slightly finicky".

Mac users have two options for running Windows: Apple's Bootcamp, which requires a reboot each time you want to switch from OS X to XP, or Parallels, which enables XP to run within OS X but was problematic when switching between wired and wireless connections (update). He found he had to renew his IP address whenever he entered Parallels to ensure the IP address would be successfully renegotiated. Because of these inconveniences, Halamka gave up on running Windows XP and most of its attendant applications on his MacBook and used the MacBook's software suite instead. He found that to be adequate with one exception: some Windows-centric commercial browser-based apps, such as a radiology system from General Electric, wouldn't run in Safari. They use ActiveX controls that work only in Internet Explorer.

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