Sun’s Open Source OS Is an Elegant Windows Mimic

Sun’s Open Source OS Is an Elegant Windows Mimic

nless you live under a rock you already know that Sun has developed and released an operating system platform, called the Sun Java Desktop System 2003, or JDS, as part of a complete repositioning of the company’s Java-related software offerings. As part of this repositioning, Sun moved to a flat licensing scheme for Enterprises under which customers get access to all products for $100 per developer, per year. For this sum you can get your hands on anything in the Sun arsenal?from operating systems to application servers to development tools to desktop apps.

In many ways, JDS?which was formerly known by its memorable code name, Mad Hatter?is the flagship of this restructuring. At a minimum, it is a very critical component in Sun’s direct campaign to damage Microsoft through encouraging Windows attrition.

The aim of JDS is to provide a low cost alternative to Windows on the desktop, in the same way that JES (Java Enterprise System) provides an alternative in the data center. For the purposes of this review I’ll be looking at JDS’s suitability as an alternative to the Windows platform as well as the major differentiating factors between it and other well-known Linux implementations.

JDS, of course, is based on Linux instead of Solaris, and has some basic similarities] to the SuSE implementation of Linus Torvald’s notorious operating system, notably the inclusion of the YaST2 tool (discussed below). Installation is generally a weak spot in Linux when compared to Microsoft Windows systems, particularly with respect to the ease and speed of the installation as well as the support for various hardware configurations. In recent years that deficit filled in nicely, and today Linux is far closer to rivaling Windows in installation ease.

The JDS setup tool is YaST2 (Yet another Setup Tool),which will be very familiar to anybody who has used the SuSE distribution. The install is designed for enterprises and it therefore hides the complexity of options that are available in the standard installation. It simply installs everything, with the only major choice being in the installation of StarOffice. If you live in certain Asian countries it gives you the choice of StarSuite, which is one that is specifically licensed in those areas, otherwise you get the full StarOffice.

I tried the software on several different machines with different hardware configurations without any hitches whatsoever as far as graphics, sound, network, printers and common peripherals are concerned. The only problem I encountered was in installing the software on a virtual machine using the Microsoft Virtual PC 2004. In this case the network, sound, and screen resolution didn’t work properly out of the box. With a bit of tweaking using SAX2 the screen resolution worked properly, but the network and sound was still a problem. If you are interested in installing JDS Linux in a virtual environment, take note.

The installation UI was bland, but functional and the installation went quickly.

After completing the installation and a reboot, JDS loaded up and ran fine. It uses GNOME as the default window manager. You can see the desktop in Figure 1.

Figure 1. My Java Desktop. The JDS default desktop, newly installed, is shown.

Windows users will find the environment immediately familiar. The software that installs in the default enterprise install is the standard suite of productivity tools that one would expect in a full system. However, applications such as browser, office system, email, calendar, etc. are all installed with the base OS and are thus a part of the same licensing scheme, saving time and money.

The window manager is clearly designed to winnow the learning curve for Windows users down to nothing, so applications are found in familiar places. For example, looking at Figure 1, you can see that the email, office, and browser applications are on the initial menu as you would find in Windows XP. Alternatively the user can move to the ‘Applications’ menu item to open further sub menus that are logically subdivided. The menu structure is programmable and overridable, but the default scheme is straightforward and intuitive. In short, the system is very responsive and equivalent to Windows.

The only confusion with the user interface is in the start menu. A number of applications are called ‘Extras’ and as a result are not present under the main ‘Applications’ menu. Looking at Figure 1, you will see that an ‘Extras’ menu item is on the launch menu immediately beneath the highlighted ‘Applications’ menu.

One of the more popular Linux applications, the excellent ‘GIMP’ is available on this menu, but is unrecognizable, as it has been renamed ‘Image Editor.’ In addition, Sun has developed a number of Java applications as an add-on to Linux, and these also are hidden under the ‘Extras’ menu.

The Java Desktop System comes with five CDs, but the base installation uses only three. As a result, the YaST2 tool contains a catalog of the packages that are available on all five so that you can tweak your installation (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The Five-disc Menu: It’s easy to maintain your installed packages using YaST2.

If you are not interested in tweaking packages and their installations using a tool such as RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) on the command line, the YaST2 utility gives you an excellent, user-friendly alternative. And it can be used to administer and install packages that are not provided by Sun simply by changing the filter.

The ‘Preferences’ selection on the launch menu provides an analog to the ‘Control Panel’ in Windows and provides the same flexibility and power for configuring everything from the screen resolution to the mouse tracking speed. In early distributions of Linux, system tweaking was a difficult process: the user needed to know which application did what and would have to memorize commands such as ‘sax2’ to change and test the screen resolution. The Preferences abstracts these commands for you and makes configuring Linux as easy as it is in Windows.

Software and Applications
For email and calendar software Sun has included its own edition of the excellent Ximian Evolution personal information management suite.

Those of you who use Microsoft Outlook?and for enterprise users that is probably most everyone?will find Evolution very familiar. The functionality to connect to POP, IMAP, or a number of other common mail server protocols is included, but if you want to use it with your existing Exchange server you will need to purchase an add-in from Ximian.

The rest of the typical office application software is encapsulated in Sun’s StarOffice 7, which is also included but you have to run a post installation the first time you run it. A full review of StarOffice is beyond the scope of this review, but it has everything that you are familiar with: A spreadsheet program, a presentation program, and a word processor. The spreadsheet program includes a BASIC-like macro language and editor that is very similar to VBA. Remember this is installed as part of the Operating System installation, preventing the overhead of separate installation and licensing, a useful time saver for corporate desktops.

The Mozilla 1.4 browser is included, as is Java 1.4.2_02. One of the main problems in developing enterprise applications for Linux has been that the only feasible platform on which to develop them is Java, so that they would run on both the Linux and Windows desktops. However, the genesis of the problem is in VM drift, where the developer could never be sure which VM is on which desktop. A big advantage of the existence of a Sun Java Desktop system is that when one develops to it, they know that their software will always run on the platform. That is, if you develop your software for the Sun Java Desktop System 2003, you know that it has 1.4.2_02 installed. This is a big plus in reducing the overall cost of operation.

Figure 3. Figure 3. Monkey Mail: Sun’s edition of Ximian’s Evolution manages email, contacts, and calendar, but won’t work with Exchange without some extra work.
Figure 4. Monkey Meeting: Get started managing your calendar and meetings using the built-in Ximian Evolution.

Sunny Disposition
As Linux distributions go, this is one of the better ones. Power users like DevX readers will prefer distros such as Red Hat/Fedora or SuSE, where you have a lot more control over the initial installation, but the JDS isn’t targeted at us. It is firmly targeted at the corporate desktop, and as such its goals are to be easy to install, which it is; capable of supporting a variety of hardware platforms, which it is; inclusive of a full suite of applications that office user require, which it does; and to have a low learning curve and hidden complexity, which it does.

The only other criticism of the software would be in its ability to be administered when used in systems of hundreds or thousands of desktops. There does not seem to be a tool that allows a system administrator to remotely install or configure distant machines, and the update tools connect only to Sun server to update the software. In the case where an enterprise would like to have its own update server, updating only specific packages uniformly to all users, the current system is challenged, but Sun is working on this for the 2004 version.

Overall, considering the price ($50 standalone, or included in the $100 per user per year for ‘everything’ in an enterprise) this is an excellent distribution of Linux that will appeal to a wide swath of people. Though it lacks a little something for power users, other than some minor quirks in the user interface and potential problems when administering large amounts of desktops, Sun has done an excellent job in packaging Linux, and has helped put Linux in position to challenge Microsoft.

Indeed, the 2004 version of the Java Desktop System, to be release later this year, will lose the $50 standalone price tag and just be available in the $100 per developer per year strategy from Sun. Details as to the contents of the package are sparse, but Sun promises it will be more friendly toward administrators and power users.


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