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Running Windows Apps on Linux: Put Away the WINE

Looking at corporate and home solutions

  • March 12, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

It is a sad truth that many corporate IT departments have been resistant to switching their desktops away from the Windows platform because of the dependence of their end users on Windows-based applications.

Even a switch from Word to the nearly identical WordPerfect, IT execs reason, would involve too much downtime and money spent in getting users acclimated to the new application.

There are, of course, alternatives to making the switch more palatable. The Windows Emulator for Linux, WINE, is often proposed as a solution for migrating Windows apps to the Linux platform. But WINE's technology is tricky to use and not entirely stable at this point in its development.

VMware is another potential solution for getting this task done, but this solution, while stable, is often hugely processor-intensive and a bit slow to use.

Other solutions, however, exist for the Linux users, both corporate and home, who absolutely must have their Windows applications.

Corporate Solution: WinToNet

It is quite disconcerting to see Microsoft Word running on a Red Hat machine. After installing and running the WinToNet application server, though, I was it seeing with my own eyes.

WinToNet is the server-based solution for getting Windows apps on a Linux box offered by Menta Software. Menta's solution is elegant in its plan: trap Windows API calls at the GUI and mouse levels and send those calls to a waiting Java client on any machine in the network--including a Java-enabled Linux machine.

This approach is more sophisticated than methods used by the Windows-based Citrix or pcAnywhere applications, which are session managed and involve broadcasting screen scrapes to the client or peer machine.

Bill Oakes, VP of Marketing for Menta, explains that this method of capturing system calls as the Win32 level enables WinToNet to deliver the Windows applications to Linux machines with a great deal of speed and stability.

"We're kind of out-windowing Microsoft," Oakes said.

Indeed, once I was able to get WinToNet up and running, everything seemed to work perfectly. There was a smidge of lag time at certain points during my trails, but the system still performed much faster than previous VMware installations on the same machine.

There is a caveat to running WinToNet that puts it out of the reach of most home Linux users: it needs at least Windows NT 4.0 to run. It also needs a Web server of some type to be used, though not necessarily on the same machine. This did open up the use of other Web servers besides Internet Information Server, so you can pipe it through Apache.

My solution was a bit of a patchwork job of installing WinToNet on a colleague's Windows 2000 machine, then installing the Web components on IIS on the same machine.

Since I had access to a Windows 2000 machine, I was able to run through the installation routines without any real problems. But if you were hoping to convert to a pure Linux shop, that's not going to happen for now. According to Menta, the company plans on releasing a version of WinToNet that will run on Linux and Solaris in the first quarter of 2001.

The costs of having to maintain at least one NT machine in a corporate setting may be assuaged somewhat by the fact that WinToNet's licensing plan is surprisingly benign. Users need only plunk down the fee for a per-server license--not a per-seat license.

Oakes sees his company's product as ideal for small to medium-size businesses, but with the additional support of an NT box to manage, the entry threshold might be a tad higher than a small business.

Applications are delivered to client machines via their Java-enabled browser. WinToNet will "publish" the applications on an HTML page. The client can just point to the page and click on the links provided to start a particular application. Applications can be added to the published set back on the WinToNet server.

This central approach has some definite advantages, since deployment effort is virtually zero and application distributions can be controlled.

Performance of this system is on the good side, but I was unable to see how the system would work under heavy loads. Oakes emphasized that while the WinToNet server could not handle huge client loads, the server had performed well under moderate traffic, as once the Java applet was started, the bandwidth for receiving function calls was fairly low.

While definitely not a home solution, WinToNet offers a clear avenue for keeping Windows users content for a minimum of deployment hassles. When it is eventually ported to Linux, then small to medium businesses will be able to fully enjoy the benefits of an all Linux shop.

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