Enterprise OS: How hard can it be?

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Written by staff at Sirius Corporation, the Open Source services group, this blog seeks to dispel any FUD around the use of Open Source software in the Enterprise and provide perspectives on business, economics, politics, philosophy and the environment.

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Linux feels the need for speed

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I've been musing on the question of speed and the end of a relationship. Since this is IT we are talking about, let's ask a simple question but on that is difficult to answer: "How do you get folk who are perfectly happy with Windows XP to change to something else?"

In a previous post I suggested that to a whole generation, a Windows XP desktop was for them a finished work, the culmination of a succession of exciting upgrades of hardware and software.

In the Open Source world at one time, fairly recently actually, it was received wisdom that although technical superiority would win out in the server market getting ordinary users to change to unfamiliar desktops was a step too far.

I am happy to say Microsoft has run square into the self same unfamiliarity problem with Vista and Office 2007. They are a bit too different to the 'finished work' without offering any must-have extras.

It gets even harder for Microsoft when even official Governmental bodies like BECTA advise the public sector procurers not to change. Ironically this stricture appears not to apply to other Government organisations in education such as the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) who have clearly more money than sense.

Microsoft though has enough clout to follow alternative strategies for persuading its customers to change when they show signs of dragging their feet. The most obvious is by not allowing vendors to install XP on new machines and making sure lots of stuff, bit by bit, won't work on the old machines (allegedly).

The Open Source world in contrast with its plethora of cool Linux distributions and manifest lack of clout (on the desktop) only has the 'hey that's a cool desktop - I must change' strategy to fall back on and that's a pretty weak opener in the desktop wars.

Why indeed would one now change desktops, why in the past were we so willing, eager even, to do just that and now are so reluctant?

Reasons to Upgrade

Readers of a certain vintage will remember the Intel hardware upgrades from the 286 to 386 to 486 to 586 Pentium processors, running parallel, Microsoft's OS went from Windows 3 to 3.2 to 95 to 98 and 2000 and Word went from Word 2 (very good it was too) through 6 to 97 and 2000. The amount of RAM fitted to a PC went up during this time from 16mb to 1gb. We all handed over our cash as soon as we could to experience the latest thing.

Of course power consumption went through the roof at the same time but we did not care much back then... No, what we did care about was speed. 486 owners were lightning fast when running Word 2 when compared to lowly mortals who only had a 286. I really coveted the next upgrade, I really did.

Unfortunately but seemingly inevitably, what was also happening during this period was the emergence of 'bloat ware'. Software got more features and more code to take advantage of the new hardware power until things became absurdly bloated.

The tale is told that even Microsoft's own engineers struggled mightily to upgrade the highly evolved XP to Vista's extra feature list but were defeated by the mighty code base and effectively started again using the simpler 2003 Server code. If true, this story provides an exemplar in what the Science Philosophers call 'paradigm elaboration'. Ultimately the accretion of ad-hoc modifications causes the edifice to collapse.

To cut a long tale short - as a result of bloated software, most computers are no longer fast, period. They are dog slow. MS Office 2007 is huge, so is Open Office (sorry guys). Running say Office 2007 or Open Office 2.4 on a budget laptop with Vista Home Premium is a dismally slow experience compared to the same machine running XPpro and Word 97/2000. Don't try this at home kids.

All good things come to an end however and this applies to this particular upgrade cycle. The emergence of new technologies may complement the status quo but sometimes they disrupt it. Those described below fall into the later category and have occurred at a time of hiatus in the prevailing paradigm.

Top 3 Disruptive technologies

  • 1. The new Netbooks (so-called) low power (typically 6 watts) ultra cheap sub notebooks with 7-10" screens running a flavour of Linux (or at a push the undead Windows XP reincarnated by MS just for netbooks
  • 2. 'Lightweight' operating systems and applications which use far less code and system overhead than their bloated equivalents.
  • 3. Google's Chrome browser (or is it an OS or merely very cool spyware?).

Quick Web

Just how disruptive these three will be will depend on a range of factors but I think the biggest driver will be as it was before, speed. Google seem to think so too. The open source browser application Chrome, out in beta for Windows, is a really really fast browser.

Yes, it has a range of cool new features that will emerge as powerful incentives to use Chrome and yes, it may be the worlds most effective spyware , but the first encounter the user has with the browser produces that great feeling, raw speed.

Chrome on Windows XP now not only speeds up browsing but its 'Add Application' feature makes using on-line applications (eg Google docs) simpler and much faster. One more reason then not to upgrade your PC but to speed it up with software choice. When its out for Linux frankly I can't see why I would use any other browser given that I have already sold my soul to Googleplex's logging computers.

Quick Boot

The netbooks such as the now well known Linux Xandros Asus EeePC which a year ago pioneered their introduction and proved to the world that there was a huge demand for such devices (thank you Asus) are not in themselves as supplied that quick.

They after all have modest hardware specifications (and tiny power consumptions) but thanks to their embedded operating systems, boy to they do boot up quickly. Not quite instantly-on but only a dozen or so seconds.

Several mainboard manufacturers (New ASUS mainboard has 5-second bootup) for conventional desktop and laptop computers have cottoned on to the agonizingly slow boot ups endured by users and are increasingly offering 'fast boot 'options: yes you have guessed how, they use light embedded Linux distributions on board which offer the basic applications of word processing, browsing and so on. After a few weeks of no-wait computing, how many of you are going to opt for the 'agonizingly slow boot option' so that you can use Office 2007 to type that memo? A quick boot though is no good if the subsequent experience is slow.

Fortunately thanks to a few 'mad' developers who in the true Open Source tradition, ploughed their own furrow even when their project was not fashionable, we now have software which is truly non-bloat, let's call it 'quickware'.

Quick Software

In recent years a few developers dedicated themselves to stripping down full Linux distributions to produce lightweight distributions capable of running quickly on older computers or very fast on later models.

Notable amongst this dedicated group are Puppy Linux and DSL Linux (Damm Small Linux). The entire distributions including applications were under 100mb and ran as so called live distributions. Essentially this meant booting from CD or USB Memory stick and running in RAM space.

These distributions are, or have been to say the least, for the minority... oddball Linuxistas. I confess to be a Puppy fan and have received my unfair share of derision in the Office for my visionary abilities but trust me one day quickware will rule the world.

How many of us Linux users are more productive with Compiz et al and every package under the sun installed as default? Linux has shown it can match and beat the eye candy of Vista Ultimate and MacOSx. Maybe now the thrust will be to make the desktop as fast as stable and as well engineered as our server products.

The following distributions have weighed in and show a very active rate of development:

  • wattOS : an ultra light weight, Ubuntu-based Linux distro.
  • XFCE : Ubuntu's official light distro
  • LXDE : Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment
  • Breezy : Puppy Linux tweaked for EeePC works on EeePC = super fast compared to Xandros, boot from flash card. Breezy is nearly as quick as LDXE!

Below are yet more ultra light Linux distributions optimised capable of running on computer with as little as 128mb RAM and booting from USB drives

I think the point made by this non exhaustive list is the day of the speedy distro is nearly nigh.

Take any of the above and boot it from USB onto a bare metal computer sporting a pentium class processor and half a gig of ram and it will fly; all we need now are some speedy applications to help it on its way.

In the Open Source 'Office' portfolio let me suggest AbiWord as a replacement for Open Office or MS Word. It'll do all you want and will open in a twinkle of an eye; ditto Gnumeric instead of OO Spreadsheet or Excel. Don't believe me? Download them and see for yourself. Then there are Inkscape, Scribus....

It's all out there.

Conclusion

There is now the possibility that sanity may be coming to the PC's desktop. In many ways the XP generation with whom I opened this post have a point. XP circa 2001 does all they need it to do. Any improvement (for them) would be merely to do it all faster.

Performance has always characterised the server market and consequently I assert accounts for the superb growth of Open Source server deployments. The desktop has in contrast, especially recently, been characterised by 'features' to the detriment of performance. Computers have grown ever more powerful to take advantage of ever more irrelevant interfaces, or is that vice versa?

Now thanks maybe to an economic downturn or global warming or the imminent destruction of the universe by minitiure black holes or whatever, many users have had enough.

The solution is to break the upgrade cycle; just use free speedy software and become more productive! Open Source will love you, Google will love you, your boss will love you but I can't guarantee that Intel and Microsoft will feel the same.

For me, my next computer will be a GDium 10" notebook booting LDXE from an 64gb USB stick and with a Chrome browser. I can feel your envy.


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