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While VARs want to know the basics about free desktop Linux—installation, setup and feature sets—their bottom line remains the bottom line.

eWEEK Labs has addressed those issues well in reviews of the best-known free desktop Linux distributions: the latest Ubuntu, OpenSUSE and Freespire.

But resellers need answers to questions about the operation of supporting these distributions: Is there any channel support? How easy is it to customize? How easy is it to centrally administer multiple desktops?

Since I know a wee bit about the channel and Linux, here are my answers to those questions for those same free distributions.

For channel support, Ubuntu is a nonstarter. That may not be the case next year, but for now, even though its parent company Canonical is rapidly ramping up to supply support and training, it’s not there yet. Yes, there is an extremely strong community behind Ubuntu, but if you want “one throat to choke” for support, you’re not going to find it. I will add, though, that Canonical, along with the LPI (Linux Professional Institute) has taken a very big first step in this area by offering its first Ubuntu-oriented certification: the Ubuntu Certified Professional.

PointerClick here to read more about the state of the Linux desktop.

Formally, OpenSUSE and Freespire don’t have channel support. However, Novell, which stands behind the openSUSE effort, pretty much founded the modern channel model. And, Linspire, for its part, has shown that it’s more than ready—indeed, it’s eager—to help white box resellers and OEMs put its Linux on PCs.

Let me put it this way: Anything you learn from Novell’s Linux training and certification about its SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) will be directly applicable to your openSUSE work. If you have staffers with Novell Certified Linux Professional or Novell Certified Linux Engineer certifications, congratulations, you’ve got what you need to make a go of openSUSE. As for Linspire, I’d be very surprised if you couldn’t talk the company into letting you preinstall Freespire on your systems.

All of these distributions are very easy to customize. In my experience, openSUSE, with its YaST system management and update tool kit, is the easiest for a non-Linux expert to tune up. There’s a word of caution I must add here, though. Until recently, this latest edition of openSUSE has had some real teething problems with its updated YaST. It’s been way too hard lately to get system updates and new programs working with it.

It has gotten better, however. Still, before committing to distributing openSUSE, I’d spend a long time making sure that the patch and new program installation routines are running smoothly.

Now, if you already have Linux experts at hand, Ubuntu is also very easy to customize and update. Better still, you won’t have to worry about a somewhat grumpy patch and new software installation program.

Freespire, like its commercial cousin Linspire, directs its users to its end-user-friendly Click ‘N Run interface. That’s good for Linspire—it’s really how the company makes its money—but it makes it a tad more difficult for resellers who may want to add their own special applications sauce.

Still, it is easy to customize. At the end of the day, however, I’ve found Ubuntu, followed by openSUSE, to be easiest to customize.

However, and this is a big one if you’re looking to home users, Freespire comes with support for MP3, DVD, Windows Media, QuickTime, Java, Flash, Real, ATI graphic drivers, NVIDA graphic drivers, Win-modem drivers, proprietary Wi-Fi drivers, Bitstream fonts, and more, baked in and ready to use.

Many of these—like Windows Media, MP3 and DVD support—are things that home users simply expect to work out of the box. Thanks to Linspire, they do.

Sure, as a Linux-savvy reseller, you could also add this functionality to your systems, but why bother? Linspire has already done the heavy lifting. And, better still, the software required to do this, which is included in Freespire, is all completely legal, instead of hovering in the gray areas that adding much of this functionality to a Linux distribution involves.

When it comes to centrally managing, there is only one clear winner

Now, when it comes to centrally managing these desktops—something any business with more than 50 desktops is going to want—there’s only one good choice: openSUSE.

The most important Windows-Linux network management suites can work with openSUSE. They can’t work, in my experience, with Freespire and Ubuntu. Thanks to Centeris’ Likewise Management Suite 2 and Centrify’s DirectControl Suite 3, you can manage openSUSE using AD- (Active Directory) based tools. If you could care less about AD-based management, Novell’s ZENworks 7 is an excellent multiplatform network system management suite.

I might add that there’s a real opening here for someone to build a top-of-the-line Debian-friendly network system administration program. Besides Debian-based Freespire and Ubuntu, there are other popular Debian-based Linuxes, like SimplyMEPIS and Xandros, that would become much more interesting for business use with a solid network management suite.

PointerHP, Levanta, AMD and Novell team up for a Linux cause. Click here to read more.

While there are some decent management tools, like Xandros’ xDMS (Xandros Desktop Management Server) and AdventNet’s SNMP Agent For Linux 1.0, they have their limitations. xDMS, for example, is quite Xandros-specific. SNMP Agent, like any SNMP agent, requires an SNMP manager such as ManageEngine OpManager to do any good, and requires the usual agent/management tuning before it’s useful.

So, as I see it, openSUSE reselling should prove an excellent option for resellers wanting to place an inexpensive business desktop in SMBs (small and midsize businesses). For larger customers, or ones who are going to want more than the knowledge worker trinity of Web browsing, e-mail/IM and office suites, SLED, with its full Novell support, is the better choice.

If, on the other hand, you want to sell PCs to home users, Freespire is the distribution of choice. It’s easy to install, and it will do everything out of the box that home users expect a PC to do.

Ubuntu, well, yes, it is pretty darn wonderful. But at this point, it’s still a Linux for enthusiasts. For now, it’s not a Linux that I can see being cost-competitive for resellers. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late ’80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at