Xandros 2.5 Business Edition Review

Introduction

Xandros recently released version 2.5 of their Linux Desktop OS. This new release is available as 2 different options, the Deluxe Desktop and the Business Desktop. Both options include the newly released Crossover Office 3, while the business version also includes Sun's StarOffice 7, various thin client utilities and the ability to join a Microsoft Windows Domain or ADS. This review will focus on the Business Desktop release.

Xandros Business Desktop is aimed directly at Microsoft Windows users who want to run a Linux Distribution within a mixed network, especially networks based around a Microsoft Windows Domain Controller or Active Directory Server. With the inclusion of Crossover Office, it allows many businesses to easily replace existing machines running Windows with machines running Xandros Desktop without losing the ability to interoperate with Windows Users or Windows Applications.

This version of Xandros Desktop is basically just a point release. It is simply just version 2.0 with all of the updates from Xandros Network included, plus the inclusion of Crossover Office 3. Also updated for this release is the inclusion of Kernel version 2.4.24 instead of 2.4.22 (for PPtP vpn connections) and an updated Mozilla broswer (version 1.6 instead of 1.4). Users who are currently running Xandros Desktop 2.0 will not need to upgrade since all of the updates are available using Xandros Networks (except for Crossover Office 3).

Company info: Xandros is a Canadian company that was founded in May 2001 to produce a complete Desktop Linux Distribution. The distribution is based off of Corel Linux 3.0, which in turn is based off of the Debian Operating System. This latest release is built from a "snapshot" of the Debian Testing (Sarge) branch from late 2003.

Installation & Configuration

The Xandros Installation routine is easy and straightforward. The installer gives the user two installation options, Express Install or Custom Install. Both options require you to set the root password, computer name and additional users, while the Custom Install also allows you to select which packages to use, to select the disk partitioning scheme, where the boot loader is to be located and setup the network.

Xandros Installation Xandros Software Selection during Installation
Xandros Installation Screens

Some extra installation features worth mentioning include the ability to resize both NTFS and FAT32 partitions to make room for the Operating System and the ability to backup the /root and /home directories during an upgrade so you do not lose any personal information.

After the first login, Xandros will automatically launch the "First Run Wizard" to allow you to adjust settings that are not configured during the installation routine. These settings include: the mouse preferences, regional settings such as currency and displaying of the date, setting the date and time including the time zone, adding printers and adjusting the system behavior, such as the theme, keyboard scheme, etc. You can relaunch this wizard at any time by using the "start menu", or you can adjust these settings using the KDE Control Center. As a side note, if a user adds a printer using this wizard, all users are able to access it, but only the owner (and root) can modify it or delete it.

Xandros First Run Printer Installation during the First Run
Xandros "First Run" Wizard, including Printer Installation

Most of the other system configuration utilities are also accessed through KDE's Control Panel, including the Display Properties, Network Connections, Windows Networking, Boot Manager Configuration, Services and User Manager.

These configuration utilities are very well written and easy to use. Anyone used to configuring a Microsoft Windows based computer will have no difficulty in configuring this system. Each utility is very similar to the configuration settings found in Microsoft Windows. Fortunately, unlike in Windows, any user can change a setting without logging out and back in as an Administrator simply by clicking on the Administrator button and entering the appropriate password.

Network Configuration Configuring Services to Run
Configuration Utilities within KDE's Control Center

For managing software installation and software updates Xandros includes the Xandros Networks utility. This utility is basically a nice graphical front end to the apt command line utility (remember that Xandros is based on the Debian Operating System). Xandros Networks provides easy access to their complete software library, as well as allow you to install software from the their online store.

Xandros Networks
Xandros Networks for software installation and updates

Advanced users will also like the fact that Xandros Networks allows you access to the complete Debian software source that they based this release on. Unfortunately, the software included in this source is somewhat outdated and not very well tested. Quite a bit of the software in this source will simply just not install or run properly.

For the daring, you can supply your own software sources that Xandros Networks can pull software from- i.e. a Debian Testing Mirror. However, installing software from a current Debian mirror will almost surely break some of the programs installed. If you are an experienced Debian user and have lots of patience, you can setup a deb-src source and compile any programs you want using apt-get source and dpkg (however, rebuilding some programs may require quite a few library updates for the program to compile correctly).

Xandros Enhanced Desktop

From bootup to shutdown you can tell Xandros Desktop was created to give people coming from windows a nice familiar interface. To accomplish this Xandros took the default KDE 3.1.4 desktop and added additional features and tools to make it somewhat similar to the Windows interface. KDM was modified to look like the Windows Login Manager and to allow a user to login using a Windows Domain account. Konqueror was modified to look somewhat like Microsoft's Explorer file manager. Even Mozilla was modified with a new theme and it's print dialog boxes were replaced with the standard KDE print dialogs to allow for easier selection of printers or print options.

Xandros Boot Splash Screen Xandros Logon Screen
Xandros Bootup and Default Logon Screens

The biggest changes from the standard KDE enviornment were made to Konqueror (renamed Xandros File Manager). The file manager's tree view puts all of the important resources available to you at your fingertips. You can easily browse a Windows network, NFS network, or access any device connected to your computer. Xandros Desktop will automatically mount any removeable media when you try to access it, however the implementation of their "automount" procedure is somewhat different than other distributions. You can access a CD or DVD by just clicking on it within Xandros File Manager, but if you try to access it from within a console, you must manually mount the media. This stems from the fact that when you browse a CD through the Xandros File Manager, you are browsing the location /var/autofs/cdrom.X/cdrom.X instead of /mnt/cdromX. The customization of Konqueror is so complete that Xandros even replaced all the "information" dialogs with ones that look similar to the Windows counterpart, such as the copy or move dialogs.

Xandros File Manager Xandros Copy Files Dialog
Xandros File Manager is a highly customized Konqueror File Manager

CD Burning is also nicely integrated into Xandros File Manager, you simply just need to click on the CD Writer icon within the tree view, select what type of CD you want to created, then simply "drag and drop" files into the window. I did find some annoyances with CD Burning that need to be resolved. First, I could not find an easy way to write to a DVDR using this tool. Second, Xandros Desktop still uses IDE-SCSI emulation to write CDs, which makes it a pain to configure your CDROM Drives to utilize DMA.

CD Buring Wizard Buring a CD
CD Burning is embeded within Xandros File Manager

The selection of software that is included is very sensible. The inclusion of StarOffice as the Office Suite also gives the end-user another point of contact to call if something goes awry. Along with StarOffice, Xandros also includes KOffice (mostly for the Visio replacement Kivio) and the ability to install MrProject, gimp and LyX from Xandros Networks. Unfortunately the one app that would make the most sense, Evolution with the Exchange Plugin, is not included. Hopefully future versions of Xandros Desktop will include this excellent Outlook replacement.

Integrated Windows Networking

Interoperating with Microsoft Windows Networks is where Xandros Business Desktop really shines. Immediately you can tell a lot of work has been done in this area to make it a breeze for Xandros Business Desktop to talk with Microsoft Windows Servers and Workstations. If a network share requires authentication, Xandros provides a nice "windows-esque" dialog box asking for a username, password and domain. This dialog box is actually much better than Microsoft's in that you can actually select the domain from a drop-down box instead of typing domain/username in the user box, which helps quite a bit if you manage multiple domains within a single network.

Network Credentials Dialog Loging onto a domain
The Password dialog box when accessing protected shares and the domain login screen

Xandros Business Desktop has some of the best Windows Domain integration utilities available in a Linux Distribution. Their Login Manager has the ability to allow you to either logon into a Windows Domain, or use the local machine's password credentials. When you logon into a Windows Domain, Xandros creates a special home directory located in "/home/domain/username" instead of just "/home/username". This allows you to have a separate account for the Windows domain and a separate account for the local computer, this feature is also nice in that if you work on different domains, all of the users you create are automatically sorted for you, even if you use the same username with each domain.

Configuring Window Networking MS Active Directory with Xandros PC
Configuring Windows Networking can automatically add computer in Active Directory Tree

To manage all of the Windows Networking settings, Xandros includes a "Windows Networking" applet embedded in the KDE Control Center. With this configuration utility, you can easily configure samba to join a Workgroup, a Domain, or even an ADS tree. This utility also allows you to join the computer into a Windows Domain or Active Directory directly from the Xandros Desktop machine (most distributions require you to create the machine account on the Domain controller before trying to join the domain).

Enabling Windows Shares Enabling NFS Shares
Easy to use Filesharing Settings for both SMB and NFS Networks

Xandros did not stop at making it easy to join a network or access shares. It is also easy to enable filesharing on Xandros Business Desktop. Seting up shares with Xandros is very similar to doing the same thing on Windows. Right-Click a folder and select sharing. This will bring up the sharing tab, which will alow you to easily enable network access to your local files. Xandros also went to great lengths at making it easy to share your local files utilizing NFS sharing to allow other Unix based machines access to your files.

Why is all of this important ? On most of the medium sized networks (100+ computers) I work on I would say over 90% of the workstations are still running Microsoft Windows NT4 Workstation. So what Xandros is trying to do is give the network administrator the ability to easily replace these older Workstations with machines running Xandros Business Desktop. It is relatively simple to get a Windows Domain Controller to do all authentication for the Xandros desktop, you do not even have to create new user accounts. All you do is setup the Desktop to be a member of the domain, and instantly any user with a domain account can login to the Xandros Desktop, which makes Xandros Business Desktop a perfect drop in replacement for any Windows machine.

Crossover Office 3

The biggest change from Xandros Business Desktop 2.0 to 2.5 is the inclusion of CodeWeaver's Crossover Office 3 (ver 2 was included in Xandros Desktop 2). With Crossover Office you have the ability to run quite a few Windows based applications within Linux. Codeweaver's goal is to actually try to get 95% of all Windows Applications to run within Crossover Office by the end of 2005. With the looks of Crossover Office 3, this goal may be reachable.

Installing Office2K under Linux Running MS Access under Linux
Installing and Running Office 2000 on Xandros

Crossover Office 3 is actually the second Crossover Office release that I had a chance to use. I purchased the first version of Crossover Office when it came out a few years ago, along with crossover plugin, I think the total together was $129. Today you can get Crossover Office 3.01 for only $39.95, which also includes all the Crossover Plugin features. Not only is this version quite a bit cheaper, but most of the apps that I could not get to work properly with the first version, including Microsoft Outlook and Access, work seamlessly with Crossover Office 3. Crossover Office works so well, that you can get Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6.0SP1 to run WindowsUpdate and actually install updates that are available, although of course it will not install any updates that you do not need, such as any Operating System updates.

Running Windowsupdate under Linux
Running Internet Explorer under Xandros

I tested quite a few applications with Crossover Office. The complete Office 2000 suite works seamlessly, including Project, FrontPage and Visio. Most of the other applications I tested also worked quite well. The only programs that I could not get to run are the applications that just refused to install because a certain library or program was not installed first. If you are looking to replace Windows machines with Xandros Business Desktop and you rely on any Windows based programs, make sure you thoroghly test each application before you make the switch.

Conclusion

Overall I am very impressed with Xandros Business Desktop, especially the work done to be able to integrate the Operating System into existing Windows Networks. However, there are a few issues that need to be addressed for me to give a 100% recommendation to this product (such as DVD Writing), but most of these issues should be solved in their next release. (Please, Xandros Developers, DO NOT release Xandros Desktop 3 until Debian Sarge becomes stable - your distribution would be much more usable to advanced users if it is easy to install stable software from the Debian mirrors.)

There are many Windows vs Linux TCO comparisons available on the web, however, most comparisons only calculate the costs of using 100% Microsoft vs 100% Open Source software. This does not have to be the case. Utilizing Xandros Business Desktop, you can take small steps to converting your business or organization to Open Source Software. You do not have to retrain personnel to use a new application for every operation, with Xandros and Crossover Office you can utilize the applications that you already have. In my experience, without exception, whenever I replaced a Windows based workstation or server with a Linux based alternative, the maintenance costs have always dropped dramatically.

Xandros Business Edition is an excellent choice for a drop in replacement for older Windows NT/2000 Workstations on a Windows Network, especially if you are like the majority and still run Microsoft Office 2000. This is not to say Xandros is a perfect replacement for every Windows Workstation, but with thorogh testing to make sure your "must have" Windows Apps will work with Crossover Office, Xandros Business Edition could be the perfect Desktop Operating System for your organization, especially considering it only costs $129, which is low considering they include over $100 worth of retail software with StarOffice and Codeweavers Crossover Office.

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