Hands-on Linux: New versions of Ubuntu, Fedora and openSUSE push the envelope

Reviews and video of Fedora 10, openSUSE 11.1 and Ubuntu 8.10

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Novell openSUSE 11.1

If I could use one word to describe openSUSE 11.1, it would be "solid." There may be a way to knock this version of openSUSE off-stride, but I haven't found it yet. In the past, updating openSUSE could be a pain, thanks to what seemed like endless development problems with its update routines. Those finally appear to be history.

Where I see openSUSE operating best, based on my look at the release candidate, is in the office. Whether you use it as a desktop system or as a server, openSUSE is the most business-ready of the community distros.

It starts with Novell's customized version of OpenOffice 3.0. With this version, you can read and write to all Microsoft Office files, including Office 2007's Open XML formats.

On the server, however, is where openSUSE really shines. The installation routine lets you automatically set up Web servers, file servers, Internet services servers, database servers -- you get the idea. Any Linux distribution makes a great foundation for servers, but only openSUSE makes it so easy to set them up.

OpenSUSE, like the other Linuxes, also comes with virtualization apps KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) and Xen. In addition, openSUSE includes my favorite virtualization software: Sun's VirtualBox. In my experience, VirtualBox is the easiest virtualization program to set up and works extremely well on openSUSE.

Finally, while some people dislike Mono, the open-source Linux version of .Net, because of its Microsoft connections, openSUSE has the best integration of Mono and Linux. This functionality, combined with Novell's other Windows-network friendly features, makes openSUSE not just the best of these distros for business use, but for integration with a business' existing Windows infrastructure.

Since I'm frequently working in hybrid Linux/Unix/Windows business network environments, openSUSE is my own Linux of choice. If that's you too, then you should look into openSUSE as well.

Red Hat Fedora 10

All community Linux distributions, by their very nature, challenge the limits of Linux and open-source software. Fedora, though, is the distro that takes those limits the farthest. This distro has always moved as far to the edge as possible while trying not to fall over into being painfully unstable.

With Fedora 10, Red Hat and community developers have once more pushed Linux as far as it will go, and what I find truly remarkable with this go-around is that they still ended up with an exceptionally stable distribution.

For example, Fedora uses PulseAudio for its audio system. PulseAudio is a good audio server, but in its earlier incarnations it could sometimes stutter a bit if your computer was already loaded down with other stacks. In Fedora 10, however, I've yet to find a reasonable workload that stops PulseAudio from delivering excellent sound.

Another noteworthy improvement is that Fedora 10 includes a better webcam support. This is because of some recent work with LinuxTV V4L-DVB and Linux UVC. The net result is that most, if not all, webcams will now work out of the box with Fedora.

There are also numerous new applications that are, for now, only available on Fedora. The first of my favorites is connection sharing. With this, you can turn your laptop into a router/Wi-Fi access point. You can still use your notebook the same as ever, but at the same time share your broadband connection with others. This is a handy when there aren't enough Ethernet connections to go around and no other Wi-Fi.

PackageKit, which hides the complexities of software installation from users, has also been greatly improved. Besides just making the process of finding, downloading and installing software a seamless experience, it also automatically recognizes when you run into a media codec that you've never used on your media player before. PackageKit will not only find and automatically install the appropriate codec, it will also present you with the option of using proprietary codecs. It's a really neat trick, and Red Hat promises that it will get better.

Another plus is that you can now run and/or install Fedora from a USB memory stick. That's nice, but what's even nicer is that you can now keep "persistent changes" on your USB stick. What that means is that you can not only boot any PC at hand in Fedora with your USB stick, you can also keep any changes you make on the stick. In other words, you can literally carry your personal desktop and your work with you on a USB stick.

Does that make you worry about your files ending up in the wrong hands? Don't bother. Fedora has you covered by including encryption for all home directories. Even if your stick goes missing, the thief still won't be able to get into your stuff.

Still, you do pay a price for living with extreme Linux. As stable as Fedora is, it's not perfect. For example, a recent update to an IPC (interprocess communications) program, D-Bus, managed to knock out Fedora's software installation programs. The problem has since been fixed, but you can expect to see this kind of thing from time to time. Because of this, I can't recommend Fedora for any kind of mission-critical work.

With all its new features, this is the distribution for people who want to live on technology's cutting edge. It's not as easy as Ubuntu, or as business-oriented as openSUSE, but for a Linux pro's Linux it's great.

Linux Fedora

Conclusion

To sum up, any of these Linux distros is a great replacement for Windows. Which one will prove the best for you really depends on your needs.

For beginners, Ubuntu is the desktop Linux of choice. OpenSUSE is perfect for business users, especially those who stand between the Windows and Linux worlds. And last, but in no way least, Fedora is for people who want to see just how far they can push Linux.

Regardless of your choice, you're not going to go far wrong. Desktop Linux has been mature for years now and these distros are just proving once again that there's a Linux for every user.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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