A Small Business Guide to Linux Desktop Software

by Drew Robb

A Linux operating system is an affordable alternative to Windows and Mac, but the choices can be confusing to the uninitiated. Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.

From its humble beginnings back in 1991, Linux has grown at a rapid rate. International Data Corp. (IDC) pegged Linux operating system revenue growth at 23.4 percent in 2008. IDC projects that by 2012, Linux operating system revenue will cross $1 billion for the first time, reaching as much as $1.2 billion. Not bad for a free operating system.

While you can still download many free versions of Linux online, for convenience sake, several vendors offer user-friendly versions and charge a fee for support. Red Hat and Novell are the primary desktop Linux vendors, accounting for nearly 95 percent of the operating system revenue in 2008, according to IDC. Further, these two companies claimed 90 percent of worldwide Linux subscribers during 2008.

“The Linux desktop has developed very rapidly over the past few years,” said Nick Carr, marketing director of Red Hat. “From a technology viewpoint the Linux desktop is well developed, feature rich and mature. It is low cost, secure and manageable, and it’s very well suited to a wide range of customer deployments.”

But Novell and Red Hat aren’t having it all their own way. Another Linux distribution for the desktop is on the rise — and it is completely free. Known as Ubuntu, it provides support via online communities, and it’s gaining ground. Further, Red Hat offers a free version called Fedora, which is also rising in popularity.

So if you’re new to Linux and looking for desktop software, should you go with Red Hat, Novell, Ubuntu or Fedora? We outline the key facts behind each option to help you make the right decision.

Red Hat

Red Hat, Inc. has long been one of the most popular Linux providers. If offers several different kinds of Linux desktop, though Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop is the primary flavor. The other versions are for heavy-duty desktop computing or for running Windows and Linux on the same PC.

“This makes it straightforward to run a Linux desktop and a Windows desktop on the same system,” said Carr.

A nice part of the Red Hat package is that it promises a seven-year lifecycle. This means the vendor won’t tell you that you have to upgrade to a different product for at least seven years. “This is very different from other Linux desktop systems, where long-term support is not typically provided,” said Carr. “If a security patch is required six years down the road for Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop, for example, we will provide it.”

Another Red Hat feature is the compatibility of its server and desktop products. The company offers Linux server operating systems that use the same interfaces and management tools as the desktop. Interoperability, therefore, is a piece of cake.

The downside of Red Hat might be cost. With pricing at $80 per desktop and up, it’s still cheaper than Windows 7, but it’s the priciest of the Linux choices. This Web page lists pricing and more details, plus it highlights the different levels of support and expected response times.

This software works well with most applications, though verify this first before installing it on every desktop in your business. The last thing you want to find is that it doesn’t work with that new accounting package you just spent a bundle on.


It is several years now since Novell acquired SUSE Linux. The company now offers SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop which, like Red Hat, is compatible with a wide range of business applications. It can be deployed on desktops, netbooks, notebooks, workstations or even as a virtual desktop.

Novell also has partnerships with hardware vendors including HP, Dell, Lenovo, Wyse and Micro-Star International. These companies offer SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop preloaded on lots of devices. If you go to the HP site and order a desktop with Linux, for example, you get SUSE.

As well as being a little cheaper than Red Hat when it comes to the basic subscription of $50, Novell seeks to differentiate itself by including dozens of applications with the operating system. These include OpenOffice — a full office-productivity suite that works with Microsoft Office file formats — Mozilla Firefox Web browser, e-mail and contact management, instant messaging, multimedia management, a search engine and many other applications that are ready to use on installation.   

“SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop delivers other leading applications like those for high-quality image editing, photo management, note-taking and dozens of others,” said Kevin Foster, desktop senior solutions manager at Novell.

For the small business customer, the company has put together the Novell Open Workgroup Suite that combines desktop, server, collaboration and other business tools in one package.

So which is better, Novell or Red Hat? This is very much a matter of preference. You can download both on a trial basis to see which feels better. Be sure to check the details of the support contracts on offer. See which level of support you can live with — advanced support can add up to a pretty penny. Even then, however, it still tends to be less than the Microsoft alternatives.

Ubuntu and Fedora

In the low-or-no budget range, there are a couple of free options that don’t have the complexity that might have kept you from downloading free Linux distributions in the past.

Ubuntu, by Canonical Ltd., has been making news lately as a free yet easy-to-use desktop Linux operating system. An online community provides technical support, but paid support options are also available. There are regular six-month releases of Ubuntu, and any given release will be supported for 18 months. Similar to Novell, it contains applications such as word processing, e-mail, Web server software and programming tools.

Red Hat offers another free Linux distribution called Fedora, which is also updated every six months. “Fedora isn’t formally supported by Red Hat, so customers using it will either self-support or obtain ad hoc help from the development community and Internet forums,” said Carr.

People with some degree of IT savvy will probably do fine with Fedora or Ubuntu. They should be able to tolerate the sometimes esoteric nature of the user groups that don’t always realize that some people are not whiz kids on the subject of technology. If you can speak some of the lingo, you can receive lots of valuable help from these communities for free. These guys just want to see more people using their favored operating systems.

If you have a limited IT vocabulary, it’s probably better to stick with Red Hat and Novell. Choose the support option based on your needs and budget.

Linux Desktop Options for SMBs
VendorOperating System
Pricing and Support
Red Hat Red Hat Enterprise
Linux Desktop
Red Hat starts at $80 and comes with one year of Basic Web support,
two business-day response and unlimited incidents. You can upgrade
it to a Workstation with, or without, Multi-OS and phone support.
The price ranges from $80 to $339 per year.
NovellSUSE Linux
Enterprise Desktop
A subscription includes support for an unlimited number of virtual
machines. A basic full-year subscription costs $50 per year and $135
for three years. Standard is $120 for one year and $324 for three years.
A priority subscription costs $220 for one year and $590 for three.
Ubuntu Ubuntu 9.10Ubuntu is free of charge, and you can find support at Ubuntu’s Web site.
Fedora Fedora 12 DesktopFedora is free of charge, and you can find support at Fedora’s Web site.

Current State of Linux

Linux has come a very long way in a short period of time. It has certainly overcome its initial hurdle of not being a viable desktop alternative to Windows and Mac. “Major technology players like Intel and Google have announced strategic partnerships around Linux,” said Foster. “We are starting to now see a ramp-up in the number of units being deployed.” All analysts are predicting increases in number of units (particularly paid units). You will be hard pressed to find a major hardware vendor not offering Linux preloaded on their devices.

Still, the Linux community has a long way to go before it rains heavily on Microsoft’s parade.

“From a business viewpoint Microsoft still holds a very strong monopoly on the desktop market and its application ecosystem, so that Linux penetration, while growing, is still low,” said Carr.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Jan 6th 2010
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