by Meridith Levinson

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

Jul 31, 200717 mins
LinuxOperating Systems

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.


Last summer, CareGroup CIO John Halamka began looking for a viable alternative to the Microsoft Windows desktop operating system. After 16 years using Windows, he had enough of its instability and the countless updates that automatically installed themselves on his computer—often at inopportune times, like when he was in the middle of a presentation. As CIO of a health-care organization and affiliated medical school with 40,000 employees and 9 million patient records, Halamka has to be sure that the computers in the hospital, its administrative offices and medical school are secure, stable and easy to use.

With Linux, Google and Apple beginning to threaten Microsoft’s desktop dominance, the time was right for Halamka to investigate the options. Last July, he quit Windows cold turkey and used a MacBook running OS X as his sole computing machine to see how it stacked up against Windows. In August, he worked with two Linux distributions: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora Core. The following month, he returned to Windows XP to more clearly see how its stability, reliability, security and ease of use compared with the other operating systems. reported on Halamka’s experiences using each operating system and about their future in his enterprise in Windows vs. Linux vs. OS X.

Since that story was published, Halamka has also investigated two other Linux distributions: enterprise-ready SUSE and consumer-friendly Ubuntu. He used each distribution as his exclusive computing platform for a month, as he did with Mac OS X, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora and Windows XP.

Halamka’s month with Ubuntu concludes his formal operating system evaluations. What follows are the details of his experience running Ubuntu and his plans for his company’s enterprise desktops and laptops moving forward. Will he finally replace Windows forever with OS X or Linux? You’ll see…

Ubuntu: A Consumer-Friendly Version of Linux with a User-Friendly Interface and Intuitive Management Tools

Configuration: Dell D420 subnotebook running Ubuntu Feisty Fawn (release 7.04). The OS comes with the OpenOffice productivity suite, which consists of word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs, the Firefox Web browser, Evolution 2.10.1 for e-mail, the Gimp image editor, F-spot photo manager, the Rhythmbox music and movie player, and a vast library of free and proprietary software. Halamka added Adobe Acrobat, Flash, Java, RealPlayer and multimedia codecs to his computer from the library.

Ubuntu is a consumer-friendly distribution of Linux based on the Debian operating system. The major difference between Debian and Ubuntu is that Debian adheres to a strict philosophy around free software—not free as in zero cost, but in the sense that users are “free” to modify and redistribute the software. Debian discourages the use of non-free, proprietary and copyrighted software by making users install such programs on their own. For example, if you want to install Adobe’s Acrobat PDF reader on a computer running Debian, you have to find, install and configure the software yourself.

Ubuntu, by contrast, gives users access to a broader array of software, including proprietary programs, and makes it easy for users to install those programs. To install Adobe Acrobat on a computer running Ubuntu, you simply select it from a software library that comes with Ubuntu, and the operating system installs it for you.

Debian’s stringent politics extend to the Firefox Web browser, too. Even though Firefox is open source, the browser isn’t bundled with Debian because the Firefox logo is trademarked. (Instead, Debian computers come with a browser called Ice Weasel; it’s exactly the same as Firefox except it has a different logo.)

Although Halamka supports the notion of free software—at least in theory—he knows Debian is not the right thing for his enterprise. He says:

“At the risk of sounding like a software atheist, I really care about getting my work done via a reliable, stable operating system and not about the philosophical subtleties of Firefox vs. Ice Weasel artwork. This is likely one reason that corporate CIOs are wary of Linux on the desktop: They have mission-critical operations to run, and worrying about which icon is used to launch a browser is about as relevant as arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

What he liked:

In Ubuntu, Halamka found a well supported, intuitive operating system that offered great flexibility and a solid update management system. Though he went into the evaluation with some concern that Ubuntu would prove too consumer-oriented and wouldn’t be robust enough for his rigorous needs as a knowledge worker, the OS met all of his criteria and exceeded his expectations.

“It may not have all the enterprise management tools that SUSE has, but Ubuntu is not just a play-games-and-listen-to-music operating system,” says Halamka.

Ubuntu is an African word that awkwardly translates to, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu project, was born and raised in South Africa.

Like Apple developers, Ubuntu software engineers focus heavily on usability. The result is an intuitive graphical user interface that features just three menu offerings: applications, which is where you find all your software programs; places, which opens your hard drive and any peripheral drive you may attach; and system, which consists of all the utilities you need to maintain your computer system, including libraries of available applications. Ubuntu looks and feels more like a Mac, and Halamka certainly grew fond of his MacBook.

SUSE, by contrast, looks and feels more like Windows. It features a Start button, which, when you push it, shows the applications you used most recently and a control panel. Halamka preferred Ubuntu’s user interface to SUSE’s because it was simpler and more straightforward, but he notes that SUSE might be more appropriate for workers used to Windows.

Halamka was also impressed with Ubuntu’s Synaptic Package Management System, a graphical tool that allows users to search from three different catalogs—or libraries—of software. Ubuntu automatically installs any software you select.

The OS is particularly cognizant of the distinction between proprietary and open-source software. An Ubuntu menu selection called Restricted Driver Manager lists the non-free software running on a user’s computer and provides management tools for specific proprietary applications that do not adhere to the free-software principles. And if you choose proprietary software from one of the catalogs, the OS notifies you that you’re doing so.

For example, when Halamka installed the Intel PRO/Wireless 3945 ABG wireless card, the Ubuntu installer told him that the wireless card required a non-free Intel driver and asked him if it was OK to install it. He clicked the Yes button, the computer installed it, and his wireless card began working immediately. The reason his computer prompted him—and the reason he might not have wanted to install it—is that even though the software may not cost anything to install, the intellectual property behind it may be proprietary so the Ubuntu project can’t automatically bundle them with the operating system software. Also, the Ubuntu community doesn’t support proprietary software. (For more information on what it takes to install Ubuntu and extra applications, see 10 Steps for Installing Ubuntu.)

Halamka preferred Ubuntu’s Synaptic Package Manager and Update Manager to SUSE’s Yast approach to system preferences and administration for a variety of reasons. For one thing, he says, Yast isn’t as easy to use as Synaptic. “Yast is supposed to search Novell’s preconfigured repositories, but it did not seem to work for me,” says Halamka. “I received update notifications on existing packages but did not find the same rich application repository that I found with Ubuntu.”

To be fair, the CIO adds, Yast’s functionality may be more limited because SUSE is designed for controlled, corporate implementations, in which it’s important to have a more locked-down computing environment.

What’s more, when Halamka wanted to configure software on his Lenovo laptop running SUSE, he didn’t always find the tools in Yast; sometimes they were filed under the Utilities menu. In Ubuntu, all systems tools are in one menu, he says.

Ubuntu’s update manager also allowed Halamka to run older software versions without constantly pestering him to upgrade to the most recent version. While using SUSE, he had to downgrade his version of Evolution to apply a Novell patch that would speed the application’s startup time. Unfortunately, whenever he launched the older version of Evolution, he was always prompted to upgrade to the most recent version. Halamka found these recurring prompts, which he couldn’t disable, annoying.

Finally, when Halamka removed programs from his Dell, Ubuntu figured out all the dependencies between applications and automatically removed other, shared programs that were no longer necessary. “I never saw that on SUSE,” he says.

In addition to Ubuntu’s user-friendly interface and management tools, Halamka was taken with the “amazing amount of support” the community provides online. Desktop and laptop support is a key part of Ubuntu’s mission.

Halamka had noted the stability of some operating systems, such as Mac OS X and SUSE. They worked so well, he said, because they were configured to the hardware on which they were running. The not-so-great experiences he had with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora could in part be chalked up to the fact that the operating systems hadn’t been configured to the Lenovo laptop he was using at the time.

Even though Ubuntu wasn’t preconfigured specifically for his Dell laptop, Halamka had the same smooth user experience with Ubuntu that he had with OSes that were preconfigured to hardware. He experienced no lockups or crashes when he “woke” his computer from sleep mode, as he had with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora. His computer also reconnected to wireless networks without a hitch on waking from hibernation, which was an initial problem with SUSE. He had no problems using his laptop or any of the applications on it, except for Evolution, during his month with Ubuntu and even while he traveled in Japan.

All in all, Halamka gave Ubuntu a big thumbs-up for its user interface, management tools and support. He felt the Ubuntu community had done a bang-up job developing an OS that was easy to install and required little configuration.

What he disliked:

The two major problems Halamka experienced with Ubuntu were the same ones he encountered with SUSE: The operating system doesn’t support CareGroup’s secure EAP-FAST wireless network, and Evolution, his e-mail client, took six minutes to start up.

With regard to Evolution e-mail, SUSE actually has an advantage over Ubuntu, at least for now. Novell’s SUSE engineers created a patch for Evolution that makes the application start more quickly, in about 20 seconds. But since that patch hasn’t been worked into the current version of Evolution on Ubuntu, Halamka had to use the standard distribution of Evolution. Halamka expects that Novell will contribute the code it developed for Evolution to the open-source community, whereupon it will probably be integrated into forthcoming versions of Ubuntu, which are released every six months.

The only other problem Halamka ran into was with MIDI music files. Ubuntu doesn’t natively support them, he says, so when he tried opening one, the OS prompted him to choose from a list of packages available to play the file. He selected Kmid, and Ubuntu automatically installed the program. Yet, he still couldn’t play the file. He searched the Web for an answer and found conflicting approaches to the problem, each of which, he says, required many command line operations. After an hour of troubleshooting, he gave up and removed all the programs he had installed in the process, including Kmid, which was the easiest part of the whole tedious process, thanks to Synaptic. “I’ll play MIDI files on my Mac, which just works,” he says.


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: junxion.commybroadband 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.

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.


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.”