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Desktop Linux is good enough to supplant Windows in a number of enterprise desktop roles, and it has been for some time now. However, major enterprise Linux vendors—most notably Red Hat Inc.—have been too busy until recently with server-room Linux to produce desktop products with the sort of management frameworks and stable product road maps that enterprises require. That changed with the release last month of two desktop Linux variants from major enterprise players: Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Java Desktop System 2 and Red Hat’s Red Hat Desktop.

eWEEK Labs’ tests show that both products feature pretty much the same set of software components. The difference between the two boils down to the quality and scope of their management tools, as well as the overall attention to detail with which each product was assembled.

Check out the executive summaries for Java Desktop System 2 and Red Hat Desktop.

We found that, in all these areas, Sun’s Java Desktop System 2 edges out Red Hat Desktop. We’ll go as far as to say Java Desktop System advances the state of enterprise desktop Linux—enough so that we’ve given it an Analyst’s Choice award.

Java Desktop System 2 is Sun’s second crack at the corporate desktop. We were impressed by the improvements that Sun has introduced since the first version. One of the biggest enhancements is a capable management framework that provides the broadest set of management tools we’ve yet seen for the Linux desktop.

Red Hat Desktop is the first product from Red Hat specifically targeted at the corporate desktop, and the offering showed its immaturity in tests. It’s basically a less expensive version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 with fewer features. Very little has been done to make the operating system better suited for the desktop.

That said, Red Hat Desktop is still a strong distribution that will perform well for companies that already run Red Hat Enterprise Linux servers and want to plug a batch of desktops into their Red Hat management infrastructure.

Both distributions will work well in simple, Web-terminal-type roles; for more ambitious deployments, it’s really a matter of which applications users require.

Java Desktop System 2 and Red Hat Desktop will work well for basic desktop needs, such as messaging and office productivity. However, companies that continue to standardize on Microsoft Corp. Office document formats may never be completely free of small file-compatibility issues. Although options for running Windows applications on Linux—such as CodeWeavers Inc.’s CrossOver Office—have been improving, they should be viewed more as workaround tools than as drop-in replacements.

Java Desktop System 2 and Red Hat Desktop can be a fit as developer workstations because they ship with good development tools: Java Desktop System comes with Sun’s JDK (Java Development Kit), Sun Java System Studio and NetBeans, and Red Hat Desktop comes with Eclipse and the Lomboz Eclipse plug-in, a tool kit for J2EE (Java 2, Enterprise Edition) development.

Java Desktop System 2, including management tools, costs $100 per machine per year or $50 per employee per year (for unlimited seats). Red Hat Desktop costs about $70 per machine per year. Red Hat’s management tools can cost extra, depending on the management framework chosen, although the desktop system does ship with a copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server, Premium Edition.

Both desktop Linux systems ship with a productivity suite, making their cost significantly lower than that of a comparable setup from Microsoft or Apple Computer Inc.

For more in-depth price information, click here.

Red Hat Desktop ships with Version 2.4.21 of the Linux kernel, and Java Desktop System 2 includes Version 2.4.19.

Both products run on x86 hardware. Sun recommends running Java Desktop System 2 on a 600MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III or better processor, 4GB of hard disk space and at least 256MB of RAM. Red Hat Desktop runs well on a similar setup and supports Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s AMD64 and Intel’s EM64T architectures.

Next page: Management features.

Management features

Along with stability guarantees such as predictable end-of-life dates, Java Desktop System 2 and Red Hat Desktop differentiate themselves from the bulk of the desktop Linux field by their management features.

Red Hat’s management tools, in the form of the company’s Red Hat Network service, have had a few years to mature while serving as the management interface for Red Hat’s server products. Red Hat Network demonstrates this maturity with a slicker look and better integration than the tools for Java Desktop System 2 have. However, Red Hat’s tools show their server-centric heritage with a lack of desktop-specific management options that Sun’s tools boast.

For example, we were impressed with Java Desktop System Configuration Manager. It lets administrators define and apply configuration policies for the GNOME desktop environment, Mozilla Web browser, StarOffice productivity suite and Evolution groupware client.

Configuration Manager works with an LDAP server that stores user, group and configuration policy data. Configuration Manager has a Web-based interface that administrators can use to define and apply policies to managed systems. Administrators can also use the tool to enact and enforce configuration policies on user machines.

Using Configuration Manager’s Web interface, we could access most configuration options for the applications the tool supports and perform tasks such as setting Web proxies for Mozilla, disabling macros or defaulting to Microsoft Office formats in StarOffice. We could also block access to any application on the machine.

With Red Hat Desktop, it’s possible to handle some of these configuration tasks through a Red Hat Network module that lets administrators edit configuration files and push them to systems they’re managing. These configuration features require provisioning entitlements for each system to be managed. These entitlements cost $96 more per year per system, which substantially raises the cost of Red Hat Desktop.

In terms of cost and functionality, Red Hat Network’s provisioning entitlements fit much better with Red Hat’s server products than with the desktop product. We hope to see Red Hat build more desktop-focused tools into Red Hat Network in the future.

Red Hat’s tools fare much better with software deployment and system inventory tasks. The Web interface for the Red Hat Network service is well-done, and it provides administrators with a range of management tools.

From the Red Hat Network control panel, we could review and arrange for e-mail notification of bulletins on important updates, apply these updates to systems and configure systems to update themselves.

For Red Hat Desktop clients, we could also manage systems in groups and assign permissions for groups.

The Red Hat Network service can be hosted by Red Hat or bolstered by a proxy server at an organization’s site. Red Hat Network also can be self-hosted, which requires a satellite server from Red Hat.

With a self-hosted Red Hat Network setup and the provisioning entitlement, administrators can also deploy new systems from a network boot. Also capable of deploying new systems this way is Sun Control Station 2.1, which ships with Java Desktop System 2. Sun Control Station handles software installation and system inventory tasks for Java Desktop System-based devices and can manage servers running Red Hat Linux 7.3 and 8.0 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1, as well as Solaris 8 and 9.

Java Desktop System 2 also includes a remote-takeover feature that lets support staff remotely control a user machine to troubleshoot problems.

Next page: User experience.

User experience

Java Desktop System 2 and Red Hat Desktop ship with GNOME 2.2 as their default desktop environment, and each desktop system carries its theme across the environment.

Red Hat Desktop offers KDE 3.1.3 as a desktop environment alternative, a choice that Java Desktop System 2 does not provide. Among desktop Linux users, KDE is as popular as GNOME and has its own strengths, so it’s nice to see KDE available as an option.

Check out eWEEK Labs’ review of KDE 3.2.

A downside of the staid development pace of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell Inc.’s SuSE Desktop 1—the enterprise Linux distributions on which Red Hat Desktop and Java Desktop systems are respectively based—is that their components are not the latest and greatest versions.

GNOME 2.2 is now two versions old, and it’s missing some nice features present in the latest version. For instance, GNOME 2.6 offers a dialog for saving and opening files that’s much-improved over the one that comes with GNOME 2.2.

Click here to read the review of GNOME 2.6.

However, while Red Hat Desktop ships with the crude GNOME 2.2 dialog, Java Desktop System 2 includes a modified version of the dialog that’s much easier to use.

Java Desktop System 2 and Red Hat Desktop ship with Evolution 1.4.5 as their default groupware application. We tested both Evolution installations with IMAP mail accounts. Evolution also can access Microsoft Exchange calendar, contact and to-do data using Novell’s free Exchange connector plug-in, but neither Java Desktop System 2 nor Red Hat Desktop includes the plug-in.

In addition, it’s fairly trivial to set up Evolution to use SpamAssassin for client-side spam filtering, but neither desktop includes spam-filtering capabilities in its version of Evolution.

See eWEEK Labs’ review of Evolution 1.5.

Both desktops ship with the open-source Gaim instant messaging application, which works well and supports multiple IM protocols.

Next page: Productivity apps, printing and networking.

Productivity apps

Java Desktop System 2 ships with the StarOffice 7 office productivity suite, and Red Hat Desktop ships with 1.1. StarOffice is based on the OpenOffice code base, so we weren’t surprised that the suites were similar. Both can do a good job of handling Office documents, but they work best in their native document formats.

Click here to see how fared against Microsoft Office in an eWEEK Labs eValuation.

One thing we appreciated about how StarOffice is configured with Java Desktop System 2 is that the appropriate external programs were set. For example, when we were ready to e-mail a document, StarOffice launched Evolution. In contrast, we had to set up Red Hat Desktop to launch Evolution.

For Web browsing, both desktops include Mozilla 1.4, an excellent browser with good standards support, as well as usability features, such as pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing, that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer lacks.

Printing and network

We could connect both our desktop Linux test machines to networked printers and print from the desktops as we’d expect, and we could browse Windows network shares using Samba. We could also browse Sun’s NFS (Network File System) shares.

One annoying thing with both products was that we couldn’t directly edit an document stored on a Samba share; we had to first copy the document to our local disk.

Handling network shares well is another improvement in the latest version of GNOME, and, as with the file dialogs, we found that Sun has improved the default network share functionality compared with what Red Hat has done.

Along similar lines, we were pleased that we could plug a USB (Universal Serial Bus) thumb drive into the Java Desktop System 2-based machine and have the device turn up with other drives in the system’s This Computer folder. Red Hat Desktop does not have a comparable folder; we had to manually mount our USB drive to access it.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

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