Tough Love with openSUSE 11.1

Summary:openSUSE 11.1 is packed full of features, but a lack of QA and user acceptance testing in this release may cause Linux newbies to seek out other distributions, such as Ubuntu Ibex.

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openSUSE 11.1 is packed full of features, but a lack of QA and user acceptance testing in this release may cause Linux newbies to seek out other distributions, such as Ubuntu Ibex.

I wanted to love openSUSE 11.1. I really did.

Over the years, I've had a love-hate relationship with the SUSE distribution. During its life as SUSE Linux Professional, it was an incredibly polished commercial distribution with a huge amount of built-in software. In many ways, it was the ultimate Linux for those of us who swore by it for its stability and ease of use. When it migrated to an Open Source community project, I had a lot of hope that it would become immensely popular and take its place as the #1 free end-user Linux distribution with a stable support cycle.

Also See: openSUSE 11.1 Gallery

But this was not to happen -- Canonical's Ubuntu, who got extremely organized and banded together thousands of developers, managed to get their act together first, and the rest is history.  openSUSE became relegated to the power users and developers, for people who wanted the "Cadillac" or the "Mercedes" with all the latest, deluxe, cutting edge features, but didn't necessarily want to be babied or have everything handed to them.

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Since the 10.x release of openSUSE, this has pretty much been the case. From a pure technical achievement, openSUSE 11.1 is at package parity with the best Linux distributions available -- such as Fedora 10 and Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex 8.10. In many ways it's more polished, as clearly it has a lot of customization work that went into it to make it well-integrated, but at the same time, the distribution still feels like it was designed for people who know what they are doing, not for regular end-users. By trying to be a Server, Developer, and end-user Desktop platform at the same time, its target audience remains unfocused and its scope is too big. It's now the Linux equivalent of the Swiss Army knife with 50 separate tools in it.

I expected 11.1 simply to be an evolution or a more polished version of the previous release, openSUSE 11 (click for review).  However, this particular release seems rushed, as if they were trying to accomplish too much in such a short time, and not enough user acceptance testing was performed to ensure that stuff "just worked." What used to be a deluxe over engineered German sedan is now more akin to a quirky European IMSA racing machine or an exotic sports car that needs a pit crew or a skilled mechanic to make it run just right.

The problem is, most end-users want Volkwagens, not Mercedes-Benz or Audi racing cars, and they now expect things to just plain work. Linux no longer needs to be a lifestyle choice. Nobody at this day in age with a modern Linux distribution should be expected to start hacking around in the console or plugging around in admin tools to enable or configure the OS for basic functionality. That was 1999. This is almost 2009, folks.

I was particularly annoyed by the fact that the default firewall, which is enabled out of the box, essentially blocks all incoming and outgoing connections for the most popular networking services, such as SAMBA. I had to completely disable the firewall in order to get a number of connectivity issues resolved. I also had to manually install the samba and samba-client packages, as well as manually start the services from the terminal console prompt, in order to provide SMB/CIFS networking capability so I could access Windows Workgroup shares on my XP, Vista and Windows Server systems. Again, on Ubuntu and Fedora, this stuff just plain works. To those who think that my issues are isolated to some weirdo hardware, here's the link to my system configuration generated by openSUSE's diagnostic tool.

While I wouldn't hesitate to give my 72-year old Father-In-Law Ubuntu 8.10, I'd definitely wouldn't give him openSUSE 11.1 in its current state. Too much stuff out of the box doesn't work without additional tweaking. For example,  if you have an nVidia GeForce card, your compositing window manager (compiz) won't function unless you manually add the nVidia repositories and reconfigure your X11 server. You also might want to consider enabling several other features in your /etc/X11/xorg.conf file, as discussed on this thread in the Ubuntu support forums site. Did I happen to mention that on Ubuntu Ibex, compiz fusion works out of the box without having to do any of this stuff?

Some of the other advertised features of openSUSE 11.1 don't work out of the box as well -- such the new Nomad remote desktop server -- essentially a native port of Microsoft's Terminal Server for Linux. Novell is targeting this at its virtual desktop and thin client competition, such as Citrix and Red Hat's SolidICE, and odds are good this is going to appear in a future SLES release.

When Nomad is working, it is indeed extremely cool -- it fully supports Microsoft's RDP5 protocol, so you can access a virtual desktop from a Windows or a Linux machine, and it even supports the compiz desktop alpha channel compositing effects on a remote session, provided your local device supports it as well. However, Nomad requires a number of packages to be manually installed on an openSUSE 11.1 server in order to work, and obviously, the firewall port TCP 3389 for RDP also has to be open -- which is closed on openSUSE by default.  Unfortunately, this isn't well documented and you can't just go to the openSUSE's Yast2 control panel to enable Nomad with a few clicks and let the package manager automate the dirtywork. It should "just work" but like many things in this release, it doesn't.

It should be understood that openSUSE 11.1 was as much a re-working of the SUSE community itself as it was a technology and distro release -- and by all accounts, this particular release was rushed  out the door by the developers, prodded by management, in order to match Novell's upcoming SLES 11 product release on the server side.  The 11.1 release certainly could have benefited from an additional two or three months of QA and testing, because it's clear here that in many cases, the developers and the QA team didn't know what the left hand and the right hand were doing.

Unlike previous openSUSE releases, 11.1 was created entirely using the new openSUSE build service, which is intended to streamline future release cycles. Obviously, the transition to this new build method from the traditional multi-platform build processes had some impact on the delivery quality of  this release. In addition to actual development activities with the 11.1 release, the openSUSE community has also elected a new Board of Directors and has released openSUSE under a new EULA, and launched a new software repository for contributed 3rd-party applications --  so I'm willing to toss some of these rough edges to "growing pains".  But not all of them.

Novell and openSUSE seriously needs to concentrate on end-user acceptance testing and QA if the next release -- which is slated to include even more community participation -- is to avoid the problems currently befalling 11.1.

That being said -- had I not cared immensely about the future of openSUSE, I'd probably just format my computers with Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex and say goodbye. But I'm committed to tweaking this release for my own personal use and getting it to work right, because the essentials for a top distribution are all there, and as a "Power User" the raw technology does fit the bill. Watch this space for future developments.

Have you been happy with openSUSE 11.1, or are you encountering issues as well? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Servers, Software

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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