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Linux examined: OpenSUSE 11.0

This latest edition has some updates and improvements, but is not for the faint-of-heart

By James Turner
July 9, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A few weeks ago, the OpenSUSE Project announced the release of OpenSUSE 11.0, the "community" edition of SUSE Linux, Novell's commercial Linux distribution. Like most recent distributions, OpenSUSE is made up of the usual suspects, including GNOME and KDE-based desktops, Live CD and full DVD installation options, and an online repository of software that can be installed using a GUI tool.

OpenSUSE started life as the offspring of SUSE Linux, a German company that based its distribution on Slackware, one of the oldest Linux distros. When Novell purchased SUSE in 2003, it began a two-pronged development path: a licensed SUSE Linux version, which comes with some degree of support, and a free OpenSUSE version. The base SUSE Linux product is identical to OpenSUSE; the only difference is the support and printed documentation.

At a Glance

OpenSUSE 11.0

Novell

Pros: Stable and well-fleshed out distro. Supported version offered by Novell. Solid server capabilities.

Cons: Installation may be a bit intimidating. System administration tool is quirky.

Best for: Experienced Linux users looking for a robust desktop or server distribution.

Novell also offers multiple licensed versions of SUSE, including SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. These versions add non-open-source software, developed by both Novell and third parties, to the mix.

The 11.0 release of OpenSUSE is largely made up of version refreshes. You'll get the latest editions of Compiz (the 3-D Linux screen manager), two versions of KDE (a 3.5 and 4.0 release) and GNOME 2.22. There are other under-the-cover improvements, including a new installer. In short, OpenSUSE 11.0 is a step-wise refinement of the OpenSUSE line, rather than anything revolutionary.

Installation: Not for the inexperienced

There are two schools of thought concerning Linux installs. On one hand, you have installs such as Ubuntu's, which asks almost nothing and installs a standard set of tools to begin in a standard manner. On the other hand, you have distributions such as OpenSUSE and Fedora, which offer more control over the installation and administration process. The trade-off is that you need some degree of expertise to use them effectively.

OpenSUSE
OpenSUSE 11.0 offers a choice of user interfaces.
Click to view larger image

OpenSUSE, like Fedora, is a simple install if you are an experienced user, but it is probably beyond the skill set of a casual home user. For example, during the install you will be asked if you want a partition-based or LVM-based partitioning scheme. Admittedly, if you just click Next, the right thing will happen, but it's definitely a confusing question to ask a user who may not even know what LVM is.

(I'm also not a big fan of the default partitioning scheme, which has separate root and home partitions; I much prefer a single unified root partition. However, that's more a matter of taste than a real knock against OpenSUSE.)

OpenSUSE tries to be extremely desktop-agnostic. Novell's site makes two LiveCD versions available: one with GNOME and one with two versions of KDE. The default on the download page, however, is a massive multi-gigabyte DVD (or five CD) install.

There is an upside to downloading the full DVD: You'll have a wealth of packages available on install, without requiring additional uploads. The only tricky part is finding where to choose them. You need to click on the Software link on the confirmation page in order to change what gets installed.

A solid distro

Once up, OpenSUSE looks pretty much like any other GNOME/KDE-based Linux distro. There are a few notable differences, however. Although OpenSUSE is based on RPM package installs like Red Hat's Fedora, OpenSUSE uses its own system administration and package management tool, called Yast2. Yast2 isn't particularly better or worse than competing geek-oriented system management tools, but it's different, and one more thing to learn if you're running a heterogeneous data center. (Of course, if you're going to centralize on OpenSUSE, you'll learn it once and move on.)

The big question is: Given that Fedora and OpenSUSE are both distributions with advanced features intended for power users, why would you pick one over the other? Fedora is marginally more widely supported in data centers and prebuilt software packages, but not enough to tip the scales one way or the other. But while they both have active developer communities and a support path, I prefer Novell's approach here: Novell's supported version of SUSE Linux is the same as the free OpenSUSE version, while Red Hat requires you to uninstall Fedora and install the commercial version (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) if you want full support.

At the end of the day, I guess it comes down to philosophy. Novell has gained some karma points for its aggressive defense of Linux against SCO, and the company has a history of fostering innovative open-source projects. Red Hat not so much. Novell has also spent a lot of time and effort on Windows integration with projects such as Mono, which lets .Net software run on Linux platforms; a necessary evil if Linux is going to play well in the corporate environment. These are all to the plus side of Novell.

On the other hand, Novell has cozied up pretty firmly with Microsoft lately in ways that have even some of its own employees speaking out. Novell signed a cross-patent agreement with Microsoft that many open-source advocates see as an admission by Novell that there's Microsoft intellectual property in Linux. These issues probably won't sway a corporate user against Novell; however, they're more persuasive to the die-hard free software crowd.

In summary, OpenSUSE 11.0 is a stable and powerful Linux distribution, but one that doesn't accommodate the inexperienced Linux user. It may be just the thing for your servers, but day-to-day and even business desktop users may want to lean toward a more user-friendly distribution.

The section of this article that deals with downloading openSUSE was reworded for clarity.

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