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HP puts Linux on business PCs

Will recession boost open source desktops?

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With the economies of the globe heading south - and Linux getting its first real crack at newbie end users not familiar with open source thanks to the burgeoning netbook market, maybe now is the time to start rethinking the use of Linux on commercial desktops.

That could be what Hewlett-Packard was thinking as it began shipping its Compaq dc5850 desktop PC with Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 operating system preinstalled on the box.

HP says that it is offering SLED 10 on the machine only in the United States, and estimates that the street price of a base PC will come to around $519. (In an earlier version of this story, I mistakenly said that HP is putting Linux on another desktop machine, the dx2390, but that machine was getting a new virtual security layer for Firefox browsing. More on that below.)

The dc5850 is a small form factor desktop PC that uses Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon or Sempron processors and AMD's 780V chipset. The machine has from 512 MB to 8 GB of DDR2 main memory, integrated AMD Radeon 3100 graphics as well as optional PCI-Express graphics cards; it has four PCI-Express peripheral slots and an integrated Gigabit Ethernet NIC on the board.

HP does sell micro tower business PCs that are even less expensive than the dc5850, machines that run Windows but not Linux (at least not yet). The dx2400 and dx2450 are two good examples. The base dx2400 with a dual-core 2 GHz Celeron E1400 with a stingy 512 MB of main memory (which is supposed to run Vista Home Basic) and an 80 GB disk costs $369 if you buy it online. The dx2450 is an alternative machine based on Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon and Sempron processors, and the entry Sempron box costs $349 with the same memory and disk. A reasonably configured dx2450 with a 2.8 GHz Athlon X2 5400B processor, 2 GB of memory, and a 160 GB disk drive costs the $519; the most expensive Core 2 Duo machine (running at 3 GHz) with the same config costs $659.

HP also did not say in its announcement whether it would sell the Linux box directly or just through the channel, but the company sources now say that the machine will be available through HP's online store and through channel partners. HP also added that it was partnering with Novell to push its variant of the OpenOffice suite (which has tweaks to make Excel macros work properly) and to put together a set of 40 applications aimed at schools, including math and word games and such, to make the box appealing to educational institutions.

HP also said today that it would be putting a virtual security layer that it cooked up with Symantec using its Software Virtualization Solution (a name combining three of the vaguest words in IT), which Symantec got by virtue of its $830m acquisition of Altiris in January 2007, onto more of its business PCs.

In simple terms, SVS virtualizes an application instead of a complete computer system, as hypervisors running on servers and PCs these days can do. The SVS layer in the machine sits between the operating system and the application, and any changes that a program makes to the system as it is running are stored in this layer and wiped out when you stop the app. So, for instance, if your Web browser runs into some malware, you close the browser and the malware is deleted from that SVS layer. No fuss, no muss.

Back in September, HP announced that it was shipping its high-end Compaq dc7900 desktop PCs for commercial clients with a license to SVS that had been tweaked specifically to provide a security layer around the Mozilla Firefox browser installed on these Windows-based machines. At that time, HP said that it would eventually make this "virtual Firefox," which is technically known as Mozilla Firefox for HP Virtual Solutions, available on all of its business PCs.

HP is deploying a runtime version of the SVS application virtualization tool on these PCs, which allows an application that has been modified to run in this SVS runtime to load and run on a Windows or Linux box. These SVS-packaged applications can be streamed from the data center to clients through a number of tools, including the Altiris ones at Symantec as well as Microsoft System Center. The Firefox browser is probably only the first of many applications that HP will virtualize using SVS on its PCs. With the runtime pre-installed (it was available for free from both Altiris and Symantec), there's no reason not to make use of it.

Anyway, HP says that its Compaq dc7500, dc5800, dc5850, dx2400, dx2450 and dx2390 desktop PCs will soon be preconfigured with an SVS-secured Firefox browser. Both Firefox and SVS are free, so there is no additional charge; HP is offering tech support for the software as part of the PC support. ®

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