An alternative enterprise desktop

Earlier this week, I participated in an online event that looked at the use of Linux (specifically Ubuntu) as an alternative to Microsoft Windows on the enterprise desktop.

It seems that every year is touted as the year of Linux on the desktop – so why hasn’t it happened yet? Or maybe 2011 really is the year of Linux on the desktop and we’ll all be using Google Chrome OS soon. Somehow I don’t think so.

You see, the trouble with any of the “operating system wars” arguments is that they miss the point entirely. There is a trilogy of people, process and technology at stake – and the operating system is just one small part of one of those elements. It’s the same when people start to compare desktop delivery methods – thick, thin, virtualised, whatever – it’s how you manage the desktop it that counts.

From an end user perspective, many users don’t really care whether their PC runs Windows, Linux, or whatever-the-next-great-thing-is. What they require (and what the business requires – because salaries are expensive) is a system that is “usable”. Usability is in itself a subjective term, but that generally includes a large degree of familiarity – familiarity with the systems that they use outside work. Just look at the resistance to major user interface changes like the Microsoft Office “ribbon” – now think what happens when you change everything that users know about using a PC. End users also want something that works with everything else they use (i.e. an integrated experience, rather than jumping between disparate systems). And, for those who are motivated by the technology, they don’t want to feel that there is a two tier system whereby some people get a fully-featured desktop experience and others get an old, cascaded PC, with a “light” operating system on it.

From an IT management standpoint, we want to reduce costs. Not just hardware and software costs but the costs of support (people, process and technology). A “free” desktop operating system is just a very small part of the mix; supporting old hardware gets expensive; and the people costs associated with major infrastructure deployments (whether that’s a virtual desktop or a change of operating system) can be huge. Then there’s application compatibility – probably the most significant headache in any transformation. Yes, there is room for a solution that is “fit for purpose” and that may not be the same solution for everyone – but it does still need to be manageable – and it needs to meet all of the organisation’s requirements from a governance, risk and compliance perspective.

Even so, the days of allocating a Windows PC to everyone in an effort to standardise every single desktop device are starting to draw to a close. IT consumerisation is bringing new pressures to the enterprise – not just new device classes but also a proliferation of operating system environments. Cloud services (for example consuming software as a service) are a potential enabler – helping to get over the hurdles of application compatibility by boiling everything down to the lowest common denominator (a browser). The cloud is undoubtably here to stay and will certainly evolve but even SaaS is not as simple as it sounds with multiple browser choices, extensions, plug-ins, etc. If seems that, time and time again, it’s the same old legacy applications (generally specified by business IT functions, not corporate IT) that make life difficult and prevent the CIO from achieving the utopia that they seek.

2011 won’t be the year of Linux on the desktop – but it might just be the year when we stopped worrying about standardisation so much; the year when we accepted that one size might not fit all; and the year when we finally started to think about applications and data, rather than devices and operating systems.

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog.]

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