As business looks to Linux, some critical apps lacking

In the past 18 months, the vision of Linux on enterprise desktops has gained ground as full-featured office productivity software has become a reality and welcome improvements have been made to the Linux kernel and to installation and administration tasks.

But while the operating system has evolved closer to seamlessly filling business desktop needs, some prospective Linux users at the recent Enterprise Linux Forum Conference & Expo said nagging gaps remain that have halted their companies’ move to Linux for many of their workers’ computers.

Shawen Donnellan, director of software development for reseller Amherst Corporate Computer Sales & Solutions in Merrimack, N.H., said about 10 per cent of his company’s client base of several thousand customers have asked about using Linux as an alternative on employee desktops, in part because of the increased costs of their existing Microsoft Windows software licences. But those efforts have faltered in many cases due to the lack of full-featured calendaring and scheduling software for Linux, Donnellan said.

“They’re just dead in the water” if they’re not able to use such applications, Donnellan said of his customers. Other needed applications are already available, including the productivity suite or Sun Microsystems Inc.’s StarOffice 6.0 suite, as well as a host of others to fill almost any software requirement.

One application that would fit the bill is open-source software company Ximian Inc.’s Connector for Exchange 2000, which provides a full range of calendaring and scheduling tools for users of the Ximian Evolution groupware client. Using the tools from Boston-based Ximian, users have an Outlook-like scheduling and calendaring program that they can run under Linux. But Connector will only work with a client’s Microsoft Exchange server if it’s running Exchange 2000, not the older Exchange 5.5. That requirement cuts out most of his clients, who don’t want to make that move, Donnellan said.

At least one other option has appeared: the new SuSE Linux Openexchange Server, which is supposed to provide 98 per cent of the needed groupware calendaring and scheduling features, according to Germany-based SuSE Linux AG. But it was just released at the end of last month and is not yet widely available.

“That’s the last barrier,” Donnellan said. “That’s the one that has driven me up the wall. We would deploy Linux on the desktop across their operations if we could solve that.”

Another prospective Linux user said he’s also faced with a missing Linux-compatible application. Robert Borochoff, a senior research scientist at the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in Washington, said Linux is one of several operating systems being considered to replace Sun Solaris 7 for 32,000 users in 400 federal courthouses across the nation.

Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said that as the pressure builds among customers for needed applications, developers and independent software vendors will step up to build them. “But it takes a wellhead of pressure to make that happen,” he said.

“I have no doubt that the [scheduling/calendar] problem will be solved soon,” Eunice said. “It’s a must-have for businesses.”

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