February 12, 2004

Cubicleware: Sun's JDS vs. Ximian XD2

Author: Chris Gulker

Sun's Java Desktop System joins Novell's Ximian XD2 as a tailored GNOME desktop that's aimed at cubicle workers in large enterprise settings, such as government offices and big educational institutions. In the future, Linux will be the desktop used by the most, and the least, computer-literate folks on the planet.
Chris Gulker

Sun JDS and Novell Ximian XD2 are not touted as general-purpose soup-to-nuts Linux distros. They are meant to be efficient and usable productivity desktops that can be quickly mastered by the non-technical workers who do the administrative heavy lifting in government offices, large universities, and in some big corporation settings.

Both distros offer streamlined GNOME desktops with features reminiscent of recent versions of Windows that make it easy to find key applications like word processor and email client, and both attempt to mask large parts of the file system to make it easier for people to keep track of their files. To that end, both offer a My Computer (This Computer on Sun JDS) icon on the desktop, a Home folder (Documents folder on Sun), Network Places, Trash, and other iconography familiar to productivity workers in the Windows world as well as GNOME users.

Both use the Evolution email, calendar, and contact application, a version of the Mozilla browser, and either the OpenOffice.org (Ximian) or StarOffice 7 (Sun) productivity suite. And both distros are ready to go to work for organizations now using Windows who are prepared to do perhaps two days of training -- a benchmark period that is commonly cited by trainers for introducing Windows upgrades.

Installation

Both distros target enterprise settings, meaning it is likely that IT people and not workers will be expected to install the distros (although, in a bit of change from plans announced at SunNetwork, Sun has recently announced that it is negotiating with Wal-Mart and Office Depot to pre-install Sun JDS on consumer PCs).

Indeed, one of the attractions touted by Novell and Sun is that Linux is fully documented and scriptable, unlike Windows, which has large undocumented gaps and where scripting always seems to fall a couple GUI-only widgets short of perfection. In very large settings with thousands of desktops, the additional openness and full scriptability of Linux can translate to significant savings in ongoing maintenance, since everything from initial installation to upgrades can be scripted, minimizing IT labor costs. It is likely that workers in some settings will be net booting from servers -- possibly using Sun's Java Smart Card, in the case of JDS -- to authenticate.

Ximian XD2 is currently available as an unsupported free download (300 MB, which took about 14 hours on my 144K DSL line) or as a supported download and/or CD for $99, and does not come with a Linux distro included. Sun's JDS is currently available as a $50 download from SunStore and as a 6-CD installer set available to enterprise customers from resellers and Sun; it does include SUSE. Sun JDS includes StarOffice 7, which normally retails for $79.95.

Sun JDS runs atop SUSE Linux 8.2 and uses a version of SUSE's Yast installer branded with Sun graphics and logos. Overall, the experience was a notch or two below recent versions of Red Hat's Anaconda installer, replete with video problems (I had to resort to Text Install) and some confusing partitioning schemes. Yast did manage to recognize a drive on my Maxtor PCI IDE card and respected the little-used Windows partition on my system, but it clobbered the Red Hat Linux partition. The SUSE boot manager sees it, but boot gets no further than loading Grub and presenting a prompt (while simultaneously disconnecting the USB keyboard) for some reason I haven't yet figured out.

JDS did spot my Netgear NICs and configured eth0 for DHCP without a problem. Configuring eth1 required diving back into Yast (which now sports "Java Desktop System Configurator" graphics) via the Hardware module under system-settings:///.

Ximian's online installer is elegant and efficient, and doggedly kept up the download even as other demands on my LAN squeezed bandwidth. This could give Novell an advantage with smaller businesses and SOHO users who want to try Linux to control the costs associated with Microsoft OSes and applications. I haven't tried SunStore's downloader, which promises similar features. Novell also touts Ximian's Red Carpet application for doing software installation and maintenance in large enterprise settings, and Sun has announced similar tools for JDS.

Using the desktops

Sun's Java Desktop System (so called, by the way, because Sun bundles its JVM, includes a bunch of Java apps and considers Java the development environment for JDS) puts four icons on the desktop (this Computer, Documents, Network Places, Help and Trash), and offers a Launch menu on the left side of a bottom-mounted panel. The panel also contains the time, an icon in the shape of 2 monitors that flashes to indicate network activity and buttons for switching to 4 virtual desktops.

The Launch menu is much more straightforward than the Start menu in Windows XP and offers direct access to Evolution, Star Office, and Mozilla. One small inconsistency is that Mozilla and Evolution are referred to as Web Browser and Email and Calendar, where StarOffice is called StarOffice rather than Office Suite or some such.

The menu also offers access to a selection of GNOME standard apps under hierarchical menus familiar to GNOME users. One can imagine that in many productivity settings, the Games, Multimedia, and other app categories won't be present, resulting in an even more streamlined experience (although I'm a bit curious as to how you edit these menus).

Sun's desktop Documents icon opens the Documents directory in the user's Home folder, which contains Pictures, Presentations, and Text subdirectories, and, curiously, a launcher for StarOffice. Recent GNOME versions place the user's Home folder on the desktop, instead (as does Ximian's version), but I've had experience with a non-technical productivity worker who became confused and a bit apprehensive (lest she "break something") with myriad files that Linux places in the Home folder. Sun's decision to bring out the Documents directory masks some complexity for which most productivity workers have no need, and is probably a good refinement given the target market.

Sun's JDS Network Places icon readily found all the shares -- both SMB and NFS -- on my LAN where the same icon on Ximian XD2/Red Hat, placed down a level under My Computer, offered the shares but was unable to connect to them. I'm unsure whether this represents differing bugs in the underlying distros, bug-swatting by Sun, or what, but clearly, non-technical workers (heck, even highly technical workers) will appreciate the easy network connections of Sun JDS. Curiously, Sun JDS lists other partitions on the machine as Removable Drives, and mounted my NTFS-formatted Windows partition as a C drive on the desktop without being asked.

Ximian takes a slightly different approach, offering the user both a top and bottom panel. Ximian's bottom panel is fairly stock GNOME with a Start menu and virtual desktop buttons. The top panel brings out menus to launch apps and set systems prefs, as well as icons to launch Evolution, OpenOffice.org, and Galeon, Ximian's rather nice Mozilla-derived browser. On the one hand, this departs more from the Windows paradigm than Sun's JDS, but on the other it makes it more convenient and allows users a bit of choice in mouse habits (a la the Mac OS Finder). Both desktops allow the usual GNOME right-click, context-sensitive bag of tricks, such as launching terminal windows and installing panels, etc.

Both Sun JDS and Ximian/Red Hat 9.0 run quite responsively on my 1GHz AMD machine with an inexpensive generic Nvidia GeForce 4 video card, which means that institutions who choose either Linux desktop may be able to skip the all-but-mandatory hardware upgrades that usually accompany Windows upgrades. The Windows XP installation on this same machine was noticeably sluggish with 256 MB of RAM and an older video card, while Ximian on Red Hat ran very well. It took a GB of RAM and the new GeForce card, not to mention a couple hundred MBs of patch downloads and a half-day spent fiddling with Nvidia drivers to get XP performance up to the snappier feel of the two Linuxes.

Given the target market for these products, I'm a bit surprised that both companies haven't put more resources into streamlining and simplifying the Help system. Sun JDS, for example, ships with the yelp-based help client familiar to GNOME users. Sun has put a nice graphic and some simpler help choices on the home page, but the content is fairly shallow and superficial, and it's organized in a way that will make more sense to Linux users than productivity workers new to the OS. The yelp index feature, where you need to know what and where to type to bring up choices, will likely be a source of complete frustration for non-geeks.

Windows help is better, but I think both Sun and Novell would do well to go down the path blazed by the more elegant and comprehensible help viewer in Mac OS 10.3 complete with plain English-for-dummies documentation and a useful relevance-ranked search facility.

Both distros have been quite stable: Ximian Red Hat has run for months without a restart, and a couple days of banging on Sun JDS has resulted in one GNOME hang (unrepeatable) after leaving a ton of apps running over night on all of the virtual desktops. For institutions still running Windows 95 and 98, a move to Linux stability will likely be welcomed by users and IT staff alike.

So, do geeks need Sun JDS or Ximian XD2? Probably not necessary, even if they are nice. Any reasonably competent Linux user has probably already configured their GNOME or KDE desktop for comfort and ease of use commensurate with their skills and predilections.

Sun and Novell are both trying to go the extra mile by tweaking the little things that can help make Linux viable at institutions where worker productivity is vital, computer literacy is modest, and the high cost of Microsoft is inviting serious consideration of alternatives. Clearly Linux has arrived at a point where both companies, building on the solid work of the open source community, can offer inexpensive desktops and apps that should be at least as usable as Windows and Office.

Chris Gulker, a Silicon Valley-based freelance technology writer, has authored more than 130 articles and columns since 1998. He shares an office with 7 computers that mostly work, an Australian Shepherd, and a small gray cat with an attitude.

Category:

  • Linux
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