Jul 23, 2010

There are a variety of tools available to test Linux as a guest operating system on top of Windows, giving enterprises an opportunity to try Linux before committing to it. Here’s what you need to know before you deploy.

Why would you want to run Linux on the desktop? The largest driver is cost, with secondary motivators including Linux application support and developer needs. Users now have increased Linux exposure, with implementations on netbooks, notebooks, and desktop systems. Younger users are more likely to be familiar with Linux.

The Linux operating system often costs nothing and is available as a re-distributable download. Some Linux distributors charge for media, proprietary drivers and software, and organizational user support above Linux community online forums, which are often specific to the distributor and Linux version release.

An application called a desktop hypervisor is needed to run Linux concurrently with Windows 7. Microsoft provides a desktop hypervisor called Windows Virtual PC 7 that’s designed for running Windows XP XP3 on Windows 7, but it can be used for minimally functional concurrent Linux hosting. The only interaction you’ll get between Windows 7 and any Linux version using VPC7 is at the file level. It’s not recommended for a useful Linux sampling.

Other vendor’s desktop hypervisors are available with a higher degree of feature support for Linux. The base prices range for slightly stronger Linux support found in Oracle’s free VirtualBox, through Parallels Desktop 4 at $79.99 that has a very high, almost transparent integration between many Linux guests and Windows 7.

Organizational Deployment Considerations

As with any guest operating system, management/administrative overhead increases for each user of the guest OS. Each user has two operating systems that IT needs to support, the Windows host OS and the Linux guest. Additional costs include malware and anti-virus costs for the guest OS, and organizational training and application support/licensing costs for guest OS applications and use, although base costs for Linux applications is often free.

Each guest OS used represents a newly supported instance, and therefore, costs associated with inventory, application licensing tracking, problem remediation/helpdesk costs, and lifecycle considerations—as well as compliance, audit, and systems security.

Sampling

Ubuntu and Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop are strong choices for enterprise desktop Linux deployments. Both have customer support communities and paid support. Both products are free to license. (Although Novell charges for some proprietary software pieces, there is a free version). Both are full-featured releases that can be installed in normal or minimized-footprint forms.

The PC needs room for the guest OS. In a 4GB-based system, at least 1GB of memory and 20GB of hard disk set-aside space should be allocated for each user machine. The guest OS will be compatible with most Windows 7-based hardware components and network connections—if the hardware is up-to-date. Certain features, such as Bluetooth, wireless cellular, and USB connections can be directly allocated to either Windows 7, or the guest OS. Here, the weakness of integration in VPC7 shows, as it’s unable to give Linux guests advanced sound features, Firewire, and a list of other peripherals to Linux. By contrast, desktop hypervisors from Oracle, VMWare, and Parallels give most peripherals automatic (or by selection, exclusive) access to most all peripherals. It’s advisable to check if specific printer, webcam, cellular modem, and other connected peripherals will be able to be linked to the Linux version you select; they’ll need Linux driver support. Most popular peripherals (but not all) have Linux drivers available. Your PC hardware vendor is the best source for peripheral driver compatibility.

Installation of Linux isn’t easy under VPC7, requiring advanced installation steps and preparation. By contrast, Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows and Linux is an example of a desktop hypervisor application that’s less difficult with Linux than Microsoft’s VPC7. It knows both Ubuntu and SUSE by name and can install the web distributed versions simply, although customizations for both are available to add-in organizational software selections as well as corporate logos and links if desired.

PD4WL integrates Linux  into the Windows 7 GUI in a method that Parallels calls “Coherence.” Coherence allows the Windows 7 user interface to show and run Linux applications as though they were native Windows 7 applications, although the behavior of the Linux apps won’t completely match the behavior of Windows applications for users. The PD4WL also allows the guest operating systems to be distributed to users for easy installation.

VMware Workstation 7.1 is similar to Parallels Desktop, allowing users to intermingle Windows 7 UI features like Aqua as well as Flip 3D when using Linux programs. The experience for both desktop hypervisors is far more seamless than the distancing found in Windows Virtual PC as VMWare Workstation 7.1 supports Windows UI-Linux UI integration as well as user-selectable peripheral integration.

Finally, Oracle, through its acquisition of Sun, offers VirtualBox, which has the current benefit of being free, while running largely the same guest operating systems choices as Parallels and VMware. While not as feature-filled as Parallels and VMware, VirtualBox works solidly, and Oracle continues to support its use and development. Oracle also offers paid support for VirtualBox, as well as free support on the VirtualBox community forums.

Security and Administrative Policy

Each instance of a guest operating system must be protected separately from its host operating system. If the guest OS is unprotected, it represents a hole in security and manageability. While many Linux versions, including Ubuntu and SUSE Desktop, are compatible with Active Directory Services, these Linux guests must be configured to adhere to organizational security; default settings won’t work. Indeed, if a network is secured through Microsoft’s IPSec VPN protocol, the use of Linux editions requires a slight lowering of overall Active Directory security, or the introduction of third-party tools to allow Linux to adapt to Microsoft’s IPSec requirements. This will change as the Linux-Active Directory adaptation software, SAMBA, releases its new version this year.

Additional Microsoft security protocols, such as network admittance controls (NAC), have to be modified through the use of third party tools to allow Linux operating systems to be admitted to the Microsoft Active Directory where NAC is implemented.

Patches and fixes for Linux guests can be administered automatically where permitted by the Linux guest operating system. Ubuntu and SUSE Desktop both have this feature enabled by default. The network traffic generated, however, can trip Intruder Detection/Prevention software, as the sites where updates are found are occasionally black/grey-listed by these security applications.

Enabling Positive Experiences

Planned rollouts of Linux require planning to standardize the initial experience, training, helpdesk and support, provisioning, and application payloads. IT managers should consider a shakedown period.

The initial experience of users requires training and provisioning of things like organizational logos on desktop wallpaper files, icons representing website or application destinations Consistent experience reduces support calls. Nothing, of course, replaces initial training and self-support links to which users can refer to help themselves.

Helpdesk workers need to be trained on Linux support. They aren’t likely to understand Linux foibles. Help desk personnel need training to prevent their call centers from lighting up like the Fourth of July during a Linux rollout.

Part of the success of Linux has been a diversity of free sources of software for users. Limiting initial application choices (by policy, and even controlling outbound access) also confines support for the applications—usually office automation tools. Great initial choices include Oracle’s OpenOffice for word processing, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, database, and math equation editor. Online apps like Google Docs might prove sufficient. Training for both is recommended where budgets aren’t as dry as the Sahara.

Online applications—cloud apps—may not be suitable for organizational Linux users until the application providers have been vetted according to organizational policies regarding security and audit. Further information regarding security, compliance, and audit procedures can be found at ISACA, which has regional chapters devoted to IT and organizational compliance issues.

Once you vet application loads and distribution prototypes, you should roll out Linux in stages, so the tech support infrastructure isn’t swamped with queries.  Depending on the desktop hypervisor chosen to host Linux, users may be able to download and import Linux into their systems easily and simply. But you need to  understand and test variants of hardware. There’s nothing like testing to prevent surprises.

Initial rollout usually includes training, but resources such as user how-tos, and YouTube videos can help users enable themselves.

Planning a rollout of Linux guest operating system instances isn’t difficult, but there are decided costs involved in training, support, compliance and audits. You might be happy with Microsoft’s Windows Virtual PC 7 support, but there are competing products that offer specific and higher-level integration between Windows 7, the hardware that you’ve bought, and Linux applications. These range in licensing cost between free and $80/user, depending on features and your negotiating skills. The payoff may be a more successful rollout with lowered costs.

Related Information From Dell.com: Get Beyond the Status Quo.

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