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Most enterprise desktops run Windows or, to a lesser extent, macOS, but certain use cases require a Linux desktop OS.
The Linux operating system install base has shown growth over the years, in part because Linux-based servers are so widely implemented in the cloud. Development teams, for example, might prefer to build their applications on Linux desktops so they're working in a consistent environment. Server administrators and programmers could also find Linux's flexible approach to be suitable for their work. Linux desktops are also becoming more user-friendly, increasing their overall appeal.
For many organizations, the most important advantage that Linux offers is the reduced cost compared to the pricey Windows and Apple license fees. In addition, base Linux is an open source OS, providing more opportunities for customization.
Even if organizations want to use Linux for their desktops, they must choose from hundreds of enterprise Linux distributions; it's not always clear which ones might be best suited for enterprise use.
How do Linux distributions work?
At the heart of the Linux OS is the Linux kernel: the core component that carries out fundamental operations such as memory and disk management. The kernel acts as an interface between the computer's hardware and its processes, enabling software to interact with the physical resources.
There are numerous enterprise Linux distributions, or distros, that IT admins can choose from. A distro is made up of the Linux kernel and support system software, libraries and tools. The supporting components make it possible to use the kernel and by extension the underlying hardware as administrators need it. Many Linux distros also include a GUI desktop component similar to Windows and macOS, which makes it easier for nonexpert users to interact with their computers.
However, Linux distros can vary significantly from one to the next. In addition, some distros are based on other distributions, adding their own special twists to the OS. Popular enterprise Linux distributions include Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Ubuntu, Debian, SUSE Linux Enterprise, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux and Linux Mint.
Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distros, and it's based on Debian, a highly regarded distro in its own right. Ubuntu comes with a polished desktop environment that supports high-definition, touchscreen features and an interface that has been translated into over 50 languages. The Ubuntu distro also includes several productivity applications, such as an office productivity suite, a browser, an email program, a built-in firewall and antivirus protection.
Anyone can download, use and share Ubuntu for free. Canonical, the vendor that provides Ubuntu, also offers several support plans that have an annual subscription fee. Organizations can choose from three different levels of support for desktop deployments. This support model is common across some of the other major enterprise Linux distributions.
RHEL is another popular Linux distro from Red Hat that functions within desktop, server, cloud and VM environments, which provides consistency across platforms. This Linux distro contains a few native applications, including a web browser and application streaming capabilities. RHEL offers self-support, standard and premium support models increasing in depth from self-support on the low end to premium at the high end.
A well-known organization -- Red Hat -- backing the distro added more ethos to the perception of RHEL. Additionally, Red Hat's resources allow it to provide substantial support and integrations that other Linux distros lack.
Some vendors offer multiple distros to support different deployments, although they're still built on the same foundation. SUSE provides several distros for both servers and desktops, including SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, which comes with a user-friendly desktop interface.
This distro includes security features such as an integrated VPN and an application security system. The distro also comes with Yast, an installation, configuration and administration suite.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop is geared toward environments running a mix of OSes, including Windows and macOS. SUSE licenses the OS through annual subscription plans that vary depending on the level of maintenance and support.
Another source of multiple enterprise Linux distributions is the Fedora Project, a community-driven effort sponsored by Red Hat. The project offers two distros: Fedora Server and Fedora Workstation.
Although they're both built on the same platform, Fedora Workstation undoubtedly targets desktop deployments, offering a complete and open source OS for administrators, experienced users and developers. Fedora serves as a testing ground for RHEL, providing an upstream, community distro that anyone can use, without the support options you get with full-blown RHEL.
Linux Mint is a popular and free community distro. However, Linux Mint is based on Debian and Ubuntu. Unlike Arch Linux, Mint appeals to a more general user base, providing three desktop GUIs to choose from and a stable environment that's easy to use.
Choosing a Linux distro
There are also plenty of other highly regarded enterprise Linux distributions to choose from, such as OpenSUSE, Kali Linux, Elementary OS and Manjaro, and each OS has some significant differences from the others. If an organization needs to choose a Linux distro it should consider a number of important factors.
At the top of the list is cost. A free version sounds great, but an organization will require in-house expertise to deploy and maintain these free enterprise Linux distributions. For some organizations, the support and services fees can be well worth the expense compared to the labor cost of ongoing maintenance. If a support contract does seem worth the investment, organizations should carefully review and compare the plans.
For any distro, IT professionals should understand how often the OS receives updates and how the organization backing the distro rolls out updates. In addition, they should verify what types of management tools the OS includes and how well the OS can integrate with their current environment. This process should factor in such issues as other desktop OSes, existing management tools, directory services, account management and supported file systems.
IT pros must also consider the Linux distros currently running on their servers. Choosing the same distro for the desktops could lead to a more consistent OS experience across all platforms. In addition, IT needs to verify what hardware each enterprise Linux distribution supports and what security features each distro includes.
IT should also evaluate its users and their capabilities. If everyone who uses Linux desktops is an advanced user, then IT might be able to go for a more lightweight OS. Otherwise IT will need a more user-friendly environment. In addition, IT pros should consider whether they want productivity applications included in a distro.