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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One of Halamka's major criticisms of Microsoft has been that its products are overburdened with features, and that this complexity leads to bugs and security vulnerabilities. In particular, he finds Internet Explorer "so slow and bloated" and vulnerable to viruses and spyware that he made Firefox the default browser on his Dell. "Firefox is smaller than an IE service pack. [And] it doesn't bother me with security warnings." The reason is that Firefox doesn't support Active X controls (code that lets Web applications share information with each other, and which can introduce security vulnerabilities). "So all the security holes that are a huge burden when you use IE don't exist in Firefox," he says. Although he acknowledges that Firefox is not problem-free, he says its vulnerabilities are far fewer and less severe than IE's.

<< Windows: Only One Way to Work: Locked Down   |   Windows: Only One Way to Work: Locked Down - Workarounds >>

Workarounds: Halamka made two decisions that helped him

prevent annoying operating system and application slowdowns, lock-ups and interruptions that cramp his computing style.

Having used XP since 2002, he's noticed that the more applications he installs, the slower and more unstable the operating system becomes. So to keep it in tip-top shape, he's keeping his software stack simple. He vowed to install as few additional applications as possible and to install only Microsoft manufactured and branded software at that (except for Firefox).

The other action he took was to create two separate log-ins: one with administrator privileges, which he would use on the rare occasions when he wants to install new software, and one with no administrator privileges, which he uses on a daily basis. The latter prevents websites he visits from downloading Active X controls. Halamka says these Active X controls, in addition to creating security holes, can introduce the software conflicts and hardware incompatibilities that cause crashes and slowdowns. The user-only log-in also prevents his computer from automatically downloading software updates from Microsoft at inopportune moments, like during presentations.

By taking those steps, Halamka says he's achieved "a version of XP that actually hasn't crashed in 30 days. "As long as I keep [the OS] in that totally static state, it'll be OK."

<< Windows: Only One Way to Work: Locked Down - Dislikes   |   Windows: Only One Way to Work: Locked Down - Conclusion >>

Conclusion: Halamka says it's possible to run a secure, stable

and reliable version of Windows provided you configure XP properly and don't make any changes to it. "If you give yourself system administrator privileges and you install software and serve a lot of websites, the likelihood that the OS will be corrupted is high. You can prevent yourself from getting hurt, but you have to have a really locked down environment," he says.

Maintaining a locked-down desktop has worked out OK so far, though it sometimes requires accommodation by his colleagues. He decided not to use Visio for creating or viewing diagrams of process flows and org charts because even though it's now a Microsoft product (Visio was acquired in 1999), it includes dynamic link libraries (DLLs) that cause instability and conflicts with other applications. And so when someone sends him a Visio file, he asks them to send him a .jpeg of whatever they want him to look at instead.

At the time this story was reported, Halamka had maintained his laptop in this static state for two months. He realizes he may have to add Visio (especially if colleagues tire of sending him .jpegs), but he says he's still going to try to keep his applications to a minimum.

For the user community at large, however, controlling what's on the desktop isn't realistic. In the hospital, which has to abide by the regulations outlined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, users are more willing to accept a controlled desktop computing environment, Halamka says. But for Harvard Medical School's 18,000 faculty members, dictating what they can use on the desktop is an exercise in futility. You can't tell a Nobel laureate what applications they can and can't run, he says. They'll "run whatever they think will make them the most productive," regardless of the headaches this causes the IT department.

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Second Opinion: Compatibility at a Price

Words from a Windows Expert

By Roger Kay

John Halamka has hit on Microsoft's biggest advantage: its

dominance in the software industry. Windows' universality in the corporate world is what makes it so sticky. Companies want their applications and documents to be compatible with their partners', suppliers', customers' and colleagues' applications and documents. They also want their computers to be able to read today files created 10 or 20 years ago. Microsoft offers such flexibility. It's hard to replace a computing environment that provides that level of compatibility, even if it is bloated and buggy.

Further fueling Windows' universality in the corporate world is, as Halamka points out, that so much new technology is developed to work with it. That's because software developers are always after the most seats (seats represent revenue). When I worked for a software developer, we loved the Mac, but we built applications for Windows because we stood the greatest chance of making the most money developing software for Windows.

Like Halamka, I have a set of keyboard macros I originally derived from the Apple II keyboard that I've nursed along through progressive versions of DOS and then Windows. Windows' flexibility allows me to perform this trick, but the fact that I have to do so points to the OS's inherent inelegance, which Halamka has noted. I also share Halamka's criticism of too much complexity in Microsoft software. One of my issues with Windows is how chatty it is. It's always talking to you, telling you that your antivirus software needs to be updated, asking you if you want to try a program from a partner, telling you that your save function hasn't been executed properly. It's like an old aunt who's always on your case. Fortunately, you can shut off some of those features—unlike your aunt. My opinion is that all OSs tend toward bloat. The good news is that Vista, which I've been testing, dances quite agilely for a fat man.

I laud Halamka's effort to keep the software stack on his machine simple. That's good discipline if you can manage it.

Roger Kay is president of consultancy Endpoint Technologies Associates.

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Final Conclusion: Which Operating System Wins?

Macs Could Make an Enterprise Move

After three months of experimentation and comparison,

Halamka concluded that his dream machine is a Dell D420 notebook that runs OS X. Unfortunately, such a machine doesn't currently exist out of the box.

He prefers Dell's hardware over Apple's because it weighs 3 pounds less than the 5-pound MacBook he toted around for a month, and it emits far less heat. "[That's] the only thing preventing me from using the Mac," he says.

He prefers OS X's security, reliability and simple user interface over that of XP. And though he still has high hopes for running a version of Linux that is reliable and full-featured, he hasn't found an OS that's up to the task. (He says that SUSE on the Lenovo T60 may be the answer, since it will be the first commercial laptop with Linux configured and supported by the manufacturer.) But until Apple develops a lighter-weight laptop or decides to license its software for installation on other machines, Halamka is sticking with XP on his D420 for professional use. For personal use, he's keeping the MacBook. Having two computers—one for work and one for play—is a change for Halamka, who used one computer for both prior to this experiment.

Nevertheless, Halamka did take the first steps toward deploying Macs in the enterprise. Before this experiment, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center employees could use only PCs. But Halamka has changed the hospital's official computer purchasing policy to allow the use of Macs, with the understanding that medical center workers may not get as much support for their Macs as they get for their PCs. Halamka simply doesn't yet have enough Mac experts on his staff.

Meanwhile, at Harvard Medical School, which has a separate IT staff and different purchasing policies, 50 percent of desktops are already Macs. Halamka has promised Mac users the same level of service and functionality to which Windows users are accustomed. For instance, Mac users at the medical school had trouble maintaining access to their centralized storage, which was not designed for use by Macs. So Halamka purchased Macintosh servers that sit in front of the centralized storage, and Mac users now connect to it via these servers.

Although he has no immediate plans to replace any Windows desktops with Macs, Halamka says he's going to watch the price and performance of Apple's newest OS, Leopard, which Apple is scheduled to release in spring 2007. If Leopard offers better administration tools than OS X and is more tightly integrated both with Outlook and with Microsoft's Exchange server, Halamka would be more inclined to initiate the broader use of Macs. He would want such improvements to ensure that Leopard users won't encounter as many of the problems he ran into accessing his Outlook calendar and delegation functions.

Halamka says testing alternatives to XP has been a valuable exercise because it made him realize that the Mac can be a viable computing platform for enterprise users.

"I used to think that the Macintosh was something used by free spirits just to be different," he says. "Now I realize the Mac has such superior human factor engineering that it's used by people because they can be more productive. If Apple comes up with a 2- or 2.5-pound 12-inch-screen laptop that runs cool, has better integration with Exchange, and if Vista turns out to be the beast it could be, then I probably will move to a Mac."

Senior Web Editor Meridith Levinson can be reached at mlevinson@cio.com

<< Second Opinion: Compatibility at a Price

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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