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Psst! Wanna Run All Windows Apps on Linux?

Psst! Wanna Run All Windows Apps on Linux?

Suppose the 400 million people that Microsoft says still boot up Window 9x every day could run their Windows programs on Linux and take advantage of its vaunted stability, reliability, efficiency, security and manageability advantages over Windows.

Understand that we mean all of their programs, shrinkwrapped and custom, Visual Basic and C++, not just a few of the high profile, broadly used ones like Microsoft Office.

And really run them on Linux, not emulated like the nine-year-old WINE Project and its commercializer, CodeWeavers, try to do, putting themselves forever behind the Microsoft eight ball, or virtualized like VMware used to before it got off on its current server kick and pretty much forsook the desktop.

Of course, considering the advent of web services and the decreasing cost of server infrastructure, folks might prefer to jettison the fat client approach altogether and switch to a more fashionable network-centric paradigm, serving Windows apps from a Linux server, cluster, array, grid or blade box to the hodge-podge of Windows 2000, XP, Solaris, AIX and Linux workstations, thin clients and PDAs that have proliferated like rabbits in most organizations.

Now, we warn you the proposed solution is not meant for the fanatically pure because it involves repurposing the Windows 9x code that people already own and creating a relatively painless bridge from one environment to another. It is not about converting to Linux cold turkey and deploying a 100% native Linux solution in an enterprise-rocking Big Bang migration.

Its open fraternization with Windows may be why it has not gotten any support from the Linux distributions who all want to get on the desktop these day but are cowed by the zealotry of the open source community they depend on for code.

It’s intended for the practical and pragmatically minded – presumably the lion’s share of the real potential Linux desktop market – who are not native Linux users and who may be sitting in their offices quietly appalled at the idea that Microsoft’s upcoming Office 11 won’t work on any pre-W2K Service Pack 3 versions of its operating system like Windows 9x and that, gun to their head, they’ll have to upgrade both their hardware and their software to accommodate it just when Microsoft’s licenses have gotten so much pricier and the notion of a desktop refresh has been erased from their budget.

The solution we have in mind comes from a company called NeTraverse Inc, which has over 15 years experience in getting DOS and Windows applications to run on various species of Unix. A tear of nostalgic remembrance will well in the eye of many an old Unix hand out there when we say that NeTraverse is the modern incarnation of Locus Computing, which developed a product called DOS Merge for AT&T back in the days when AT&T owned Unix.

For newbies, suffice it to say that Merge was the earliest known attempt to run DOS programs on Unix.

The Locus-Merge story is kind of long and windy and provides ample opportunity for name-dropping. Locus ceased being a standalone operation in March of 1995 when Platinum Technologies bought it. Then when Platinum was in turn being bought by Computer Associates a few years later, an outfit by the name of Dascom Inc that, among other things, provided the old Santa Cruz Operation with secure, military-grade Compartmented Mode Workstation technology and used Merge in its recipe offered to take Merge off its hands.

Merge became the genesis of a new Dascom subsidiary called TreLos whose charter was to bring Merge to Linux.

Then IBM stepped in two months after Dascom bought Merge and up and bought Dascom. IBM mucked around with TreLos and Merge for a while but couldn’t quite figure out how to fit them into its product plans, even after doing an “extended semi-secret beta.” It had wanted Dascom for its security anyhow. So Dascom’s former executive chairman James Clark, who was then VP of strategy, business development and operations for the Security Business Unit of IBM satellite Tivoli Systems and who had briefly been CEO of TreLos, offered to buy the unit back and IBM agreed to spin the thing off.

Clark, who back in the good old days was president of Pacific operations for Unix Systems Labs, the AT&T unit that owned Unix before it was sold off to Novell and then SCO, is now president and CEO of NeTraverse, which suffered a near-death experience last year and had to cut its staff in half and trim its burn rate in the absence of second-round venture capital. It has subsequently gotten another investor and seen another $1.3 million put in its bank account.

Anyway that brings us to today and the fact that NeTraverse is peddling a fat client-style Locus-descendant called Win4Lin Workstation 4.0 and a Win4Lin Terminal Server 2.0 complements of an outfit called that the post-IBM TreLos merged with to form NeTraverse that serves Windows user sessions from a Linux server. It fancies that its multi-user server edition could cut “a huge chunk of Microsoft revenue out of the equation by starting the Linux penetration at the next turn of the Microsoft upgrade crank,” namely Windows 2000, .NET Server and XP.

NeTraverse has also just offered to give the Linux User Groups (LUGs) $200,000 worth of its software over the next year to seed a serious end-to-end transition off of Windows to Linux by harnessing Linux’ inimitable grassroots power. NeTraverse figures the stars have never been so well aligned against Microsoft as now, given the amount of alienation it has created.

NeTraverse scorns WINE as a doomed experiment and claims it’s really insidious to the Linux cause because it discourages the development of native Linux applications. It encourages the continued use of Office – quirky and buggy as in may be on WINE – over the use of perfectly reasonable Linux substitutes like StarOffice and OpenOffice.

NeTraverse claims its stuff, on the other hand, encourages a transition off Windows applications altogether and the eventual replacement of Windows apps by native Linux apps written as web services. It says its way “is a smooth transition that reaps the immediate rewards of expanding the Linux footprint end-to-end.”

Curtain claims that “without a bridge strategy, Linux on the desktop will remain an insignificant market presence – at a minimum it will dramatically under-perform with respect to its potential.”

Unlike virtualized widgetry, the integrated approach of NeTraverse’s technology runs in shared memory as a native Linux process utilizing all the host services of Linux (memory management, caching and task scheduling) and writes to the Linux File System just like any other Linux application would. It isn’t grafted on. Control isn’t abdicated to a virtual machine layer that has its own algorithms and needs. It doesn’t co-reside with Linux or bring along its own set of services and resources so theoretically there aren’t any penalties to be paid in resource requirements, performance, manageability and migration.

Win4Lin runs in a configurable memory footprint. It can be as small as 32MB (16MB really) and as large as 128MB of physical RAM. It reportedly starts in 12 seconds and shuts down in one second on typical desktop hardware.

NeTraverse also claims to be a third cheaper than VMware on a straight software-to-software basis before any higher hardware costs, management costs and productivity costs are factored in. Win4Lin lists for $89.99; Win4Lin Terminal Server, cheaper than using Citrix, which is also chained to the Microsoft platform and can’t server Windows sessions from a Linux server, is about $100 a user. Curtain says the widgetry is comparable to Microsoft Terminal Server and Citrix in the number of users it will support.

The NeTraverse multi-user technology uses either a standard X protocol or an X-based one derived from the open source Virtual Networking Computer (VNC) technology brewed up by the Olivetti Research Laboratories in Cambridge, England that AT&T bought three years ago. X is fat and slow but a LAN pipe is wide enough, Curtain claims, that performance isn’t impacted by X’s verbosity. NeTraverse also goes into deals with Citrix rival Tarantella, a holdover from its Unix heritage, and Tarantella uses a Microsoft-style Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).

Currently Win4Lin only works with Win9x although it will run Office 2000 and Office XP. Fat client versions that support Windows 2000 and XP are in development. The company should be refining the Win2K one by Q2. It does not support DirectX either and since it’s largely used by the home user and for high-end multimedia gaming doesn’t intend to. It sees the volume opportunity in the enterprise and SMB markets delivering Windows business and productivity apps on Linux.

Curtain estimates that the Win4Lin in both its manifestations is currently used by upwards of 70,000 registered users. NeTraverse currently has to create hooks for each rev of a Linux distribution, but is working to get the distros themselves to put Win4Lin hooks at their end, beginning with Xandros and Lycoris. Otherwise, it supports Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Turbolinux, the old Caldera and soon the new United Linux release.

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More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at) or paperboy(at), and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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Bal 12/02/02 11:13:00 AM EST

Last time I saw Win4Lin compared to VM Ware, it didn't measure up. Given this article, it still looks like VM Ware is more versatile. So what is the advantage of Win4Lin?