Windows vs. Linux vs. OS X

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

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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.

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 flavor 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.

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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.

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Second Opinion: Hardware's the Issue

A Linux expert weighs in

By David Torre

Having read of John Halamka's experience using Fedora and

RHEL on an X41 tablet PC, I was not surprised by the mixed results. About 90 percent of Halamka's issues were hardware-related. Coincidentally, the X41 is not listed as officially supported by either Fedora or RHEL on Linux vendor Red Hat's website.

My Dell D600 Fedora laptop has the same network card as Halamka's X41, yet I always achieve network connectivity immediately. My suspend to disk (sleep) feature works flawlessly. As for USB thumb drives, my laptop happily recognizes my Cruzer Micro with every insert. However, in the business world, end user perception plays a key role in acceptance of new technologies. I couldn't agree more with Halamka's opinion: If it is to be successfully deployed on end user systems, Linux must be able to function in heterogeneous environments with as little tweaking as possible. It's simply not practical to spend countless hours building one perfectly compatible laptop.

One alternative is for hardware vendors to provide the necessary hardware specifications to the Linux and open-source developer community. This is already commonplace, but some companies are more inclined to provide specs than others.

It's the hardware companies such as Dell or Lenovo that will put the final seal of approval for Linux support on their machines. As a consequence of many variations, hardware vendors will likely pick a small handful of Linux OS versions to officially support for their various systems. If you work in an organization where support and compatibility are not optional, then you'll need to choose one of the officially supported distributions from your hardware vendor.

However, the beauty of Linux is that you can take the more corporate officially supported path, or you may opt for the "some assembly required" approach. Keep in mind, not all organizations can afford commercial operating system licenses and expensive hardware support contracts. The "problem" of having so many Linux versions is also a strong point for Linux users because they're not bound to one OS vendor. This is not the case in the Microsoft world.

In summary, my hope is that Halamka continues to entertain the idea of using Linux. I would recommend using an operating system more suitable to desktops such as Ubuntu or Linspire, as opposed to the more server-oriented distributions such as Fedora or RHEL. He could also consider a non-Linux open-source alternative to Microsoft Windows such as FreeBSD, Skyos or Haiku on end user systems.

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

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Windows: Only One Way to Work: Locked Down

Configuration: Dell D420 subnotebook running Windows XP

with Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer and Firefox

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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 traveling 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 mislabeled an Apple product] that Halamka used on his Mac and the open-source Evolution e-mail application.

Because Windows is the top-selling operating system, new hardware such as GPS modems and EVDO wireless cards are always developed first for XP. So Halamka rarely worries whether his computer is going to recognize a new device or network; it's pretty much a guarantee. For example, one day in September, just as he was about to start a two-hour interactive lecture at Boston University that required him to use the Web, he realized the network cable in the room wouldn't reach his laptop. Rather than move his computer to an inconvenient spot in the lecture hall, he simply fired up the wireless broadband connection on his computer to get Internet access. "I was able to get myself out of a jam because so much is available for XP," he says. "Monopoly does generate interoperability."

The fact that he can easily change the OS's underlying file structure with a simple right click enabled him to configure his XP desktop to look like the desktop on his MacBook. He was so taken with the MacBook's clean user interface that he wanted to replicate it on his Dell, so he created a short cut that takes him to all the files he's working on. The only other items on his Dell desktop—as on his Mac—are a trash can and a launch bar with icons for his e-mail client, Firefox client, a calculator, a notepad and wide area network wireless connectivity.

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What he disliked: The drawback of Windows' widespread

interoperability is that figuring out what driver you need to enable certain functionality can be confusing. For instance, when Halamka tried to connect his laptop to CareGroup's wireless network, the wireless driver that came with his Dell didn't work properly. He wasn't sure if Dell's website or Intel's would have the fix he needed, so he spent time on both sites. (He found a patch on Dell's website but then had to go to Intel's site for the most updated one.)

"Users have to be pretty savvy and be able to navigate various manufacturing sites to track down drivers to support this stuff," he says. Because Microsoft does not control the hardware its software runs on, figuring out which drivers will work with any given configuration is what makes Windows harder than Apple to use, he adds. In the corporate setting, systems administrators do most of this searching—part of what gives Windows its reputation for being time-consuming to manage.

By contrast, Halamka continues, because Apple governs much of the hardware and the software in the Macintosh world, Apple can preconfigure its machines with all the proper drivers installed.

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