A Mile in IT’s Shoes

Linux is far from perfect. Here’s a no-holds-barred assessment.
Sometimes I have to wonder whether the people working on key open source projects really understand the end-user. While Linux has made some great strides interoperating with Windows and Windows applications, the more I use Linux as a desktop operating system in real corporate environments, the more I realize we’ve got a long way to go before anyone — and I mean anyone and everyone — can take a ride on the Magic Linux Bus.
Until recently, I never really realized just how many little things are critical for user acceptance in large organizations, the first place where Linux is likely to make its first big desktop wins. But now, as I work on a Linux desktop pilot project for a large institutional client, I’m finding that the little, minor annoyances typically and often willfully ignored by die-hard Linux users are total deal breakers in large end-user environments, even in departments like IT where “eating your own dog food” is a time-honored tradition.
Let’s start with OpenOffice.org, the core of the Linux productivity desktop.
Yes, OpenOffice.org 2.0 is a huge improvement over 1.x in terms of being able to import Microsoft Office files. But what about portability in the other direction? Take in any foreign Office document of relative complexity in Word or Powerpoint format, make some minor changes, such as fixing a typo, do a “Save As” in native Microsoft Office .DOC or .PPT, and then just try opening that document in Office again and see what happens. All the formatting gets completely munged to hell, because OpenOffice completely destroys the metadata from the original document and rewrites it in some half-baked least-common-denominator format that tries to emulate Office 97. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and try it. Complex tables in Word get completely f* cked up beyond all recognition (F.U.B.A.R.), images get moved around and re-rasterized to the point where they look really crappy, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Powerpoint is a complete disaster. Got some nice transitions or nifty animations in your presentation? Kiss them goodbye.
If you have to pass documents back and forth with Windows users on a frequent basis, telling the other side to switch to OpenOffice.org just won’t cut it, particularly if the other side is, say, oh, I dunno, the governor’s office?
Dammit, OpenOffice.org, do no harm!
This is such a severe problem that my client ended up choosing Office XP with a volume license of Codeweavers’ Crossover Office Professional. Believe me, it can get rather expensive to go that route if you start talking hundreds of users. As it turns out, my client already had a Select agreement with Microsoft, so it already ate the total cost of ownership of Office XP long ago, but what about an organization that didn’t? What if the company’s licenses were tied to specific machines or OEM agreement and the company was using thin clients with LTSP off a new server and needed all new client licenses for Microsoft Office? That’d completely blow the “Linux is cheaper” argument to hell, wouldn’t it?
And the headaches don’t stop with OpenOffice.org.
Active Directory integration is a huge hassle. Sure, Winbind works — if you know what the hell you’re doing and can commune for several days with a nice O’Reilly book. Otherwise, there’s no easy, trouble-free way of setting up a Linux server or desktop as an Active Directory client. Neither Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 or SuSE 9.x has particularly good tools for correctly configuring Samba, Kerberos, PAM, and NTP with all of the right parameters and manual tweaks. I recently spent about a week with some pretty smart people just getting a single server to join an Active Directory domain and authenticate user logins correctly.
If we really expect enterprises to adopt Linux desktops, this crap has to be seamless and a no-brainer. Simple things, such as not having to constantly enter your user credentials in KDE every time you touch an AD-authenticated Windows share, or just being able to cache Samba passwords in a user profile, shouldn’t be rocket science. Forced periodic network password resets (a common practice in IT environments) in Linux shouldn’t require that users know how to use smbpasswd from the command line with the correct options. And mounting home directories on legacy Windows 2000 file and print servers during logon shoudn’t require some convoluted half-baked shell script or wacky NFS/NIS or SAN-based workaround, either. It should just work.
Interoperability’s a bitch, ain’t it?

Jason Perlow is Linux Magazine’ s favorite curmudgeon. You can reach him at class="emailaddress">jperlow@linux-mag.com.

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