May 12, 2009

Using Linux in a Windows World

There are three types of computer enthusiasts in existence. Those who run Linux, those who run Windows, and those who want to run Linux but don't. People who dual-boot are in the last category.

For simplicity, I've denied the existence of all other operating systems.

This article is aimed at the people who wish they ran Linux on their workstation, but for some reason, don't.

So why don't you use Linux full time?

Most people, when asked this question, will give me some half-mumbled excuse about how they are forced to use Windows because at work there's some server that they need to access or how there's one application that they really need, and of course it won't run on Linux.

If after reading this article, you're still running Windows, then you can safely shift over to the second category of people and go on about your day.

"It's easy for you, but I have E-mails I need to send, documents I need to write, and internal admins at my work who frown upon Open Source."

Excuses. I have emails to send, documents to write, and a team of engineers who give me a hard time for using Linux, but it's my chosen operating system and I'm sticking by it.

Taking the leap

If you've never been a full time Linux user before, there may be times when you'll want to go back. Maybe there's something that you need to get done, and you just don't have time to work through it, and turning back seems so tempting. Stick with it. Once you're settled, and you've got everything how you like it, you'll likely never go back.

Choose something easy

Pick an easy distribution where things "just work". I chose Ubuntu for my workstation because, for the most part, everything just worked. When things just work, it means you can get on with other, more important things, like work.

Other choices may be Fedora or OpenSUSE. Just try not to turn this exercise into a pissing contest, and go with what you feel most comfortable with. You can be 1337 in your spare time; at work lets opt for productivity.

Anything you can do, I can do better

Well lets start with some basic Windows-ey tasks. If you need to access a SMB/CIFS network share, you might usually enter something like this into the address bar of your file-browser:


Well it ain't so much different in Linux. Try entering this into your Nautilus file-browser:


Whack in your Active Directory credentials when prompted, browse your files, and try to forget that back-slash blasphemy (or backslashphemy)


When it comes to Office Suites, well, I'm not going to lie here: Microsoft Office is one step, skip and a jump in front of everyone else.

Having said that (it needed to be said) I use OpenOffice for about 85-90% of my day-to-day document handling without any problems. The hardest part? Letting go of any prejudices, and just giving it a fair go. Go on, I dare you.

I'll talk about the other 10-15% of the time shortly, but now lets talk about a big one...


Well, I suppose I better be more specific. I'm talking about Microsoft Exchange (There's no shortage of regular email clients)

There has recently been released a plugin for Evolution that adds the ability to talk MAPI to the Exchange server, introducing native email, calendar and address book functionality. While this is a huge step in the right direction for the Linux community, in my opinion this plugin is far from usable (at time of writing) and whether you use this or not will entirely depend on your individual experience with it, and your requirements in an email client.

If the exchange server at your work has IMAP enabled, you will be able to easily retrieve your mail using this. Unfortunately that does not include calendar and address book.

Outlook Web Access is another option if you don't mind browser-based email access. This one will include calendar and address book, but the interface is really quite limited in functionality.

Crossover Office

I've refrained from including this in the last two sections because I think it deserves it's own category.

Crossover Office allows you to install Windows software on your Linux desktop. It runs Wine under the covers, but unlike Wine, it will do most of the hard work for you, and even resolves some dependencies, like .NET.

On my work laptop I have successfully, and easily, installed the full Microsoft Office 2007 suite, so for that other 10-15% of the time, I can write documents that can be sent to, and read by, a Windows user.

For Email, Microsoft Outlook works surprisingly well. You can access your emails, calendar and addresses in exactly the same way you would on a Windows machine -- It'll even install the Windows fonts, and it will even crash sometimes, just like in Windows.

One cool thing about Crossover is that your applications will be installed into 'bottles' -- isolated virtual instances of the operating system that you'd like to emulate. The beauty of this method is that you can quite easily install both Microsoft Office 2003 and 2007 if you so choose, without one interfering with the other. You can simulate a reboot on a single bottle even. You could loosely equate this methodology to the Google Chrome browser, where each tab will spawn its own process, meaning that if one crashes, the rest will remain untouched.

Crossover Office is not a free product, and I don't know about you, but I certainly had to think about this one for longer than a second. I trialled the evaluation version for close to the entire thirty day period before coming to my decision. $39.95 for a life-time license, and six months technical support on top of that? I'll take one please. Haven't once regretted my decision.

If all else fails, virtualise it

Well, sometimes the open source equivalents just aren't good enough, or some application just refuses to run with Wine or Crossover Office. Hell, there are many of these.

To overcome this issue, I've installed Windows XP in a virtual environment which I can quickly boot up if I need to. There are a number of tools to do this, but I've chosen VMware. VMware Server is freely available for download, and comes with VMware Player which is a very light tool to run your virtual machine. How to set up a virtual machine using VMware is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but don't worry, it's really easy.

VMware Server, unlike it's friend VMware Workstation (the non-free version), will run as a background process on your computer, and is managed using a web interface. I'm using Workstation on my workstation (how appropriate?) because I prefer it and I was lucky enough to get a full version through my work. Which route you take will depend on your preference and the depth of your pockets. I'd recommend checking out the 30-day evaluation version of Workstation just to check it out.

VMware Workstation and Player bring along a new-ish feature called Unity, which allows you to minimise the main window of your virtualised environment, and have the running applications pop out to your Linux desktop, making it look as though they're running natively (sort of). Nice!

Some other tools that can be used to achieve similar virtualisation results are Xen, VirtualBox and Qemu.

So, what now?

So, if after all of that you're thinking "Why should I go to all that trouble, when I could just run these applications natively in Windows?", you're a category-two person and you always will be.

The answer to that question is quite simple really; Choice. Power. Flexibility. Beauty. Awesomeness.

If you want an operating system that gives you all of these, and more, then you'll make that extra bit of effort with your Linux desktop to conform to Microsoft's half-arsed propriety ways for the time being.

Now, go grab your favourite distribution install media (for free *snicker*), hold your breath (not for too long) and wipe your hard disk of all traces of that damned viral system (Windows).

What else?

Maybe this will give you a point to start from, but I've really only just scratched the surface. What are some other tools that you use? Describe some of your triumphs?

The tools I've mentioned are mostly just for the basic office tasks, but I'm sure there are plenty of industry-specific tools. What have you had successes with?

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