- Solid setup and management tools
- uncluttered and unlikely to frighten Windows users
- sensible bundle of applications
- plenty of support options
- Lacks Exchange support out of the box
Novell Linux Desktop is intended for corporate use. Like the same company's SUSE Linux 10, it's based on SUSE Linux, with a choice of the KDE or GNOME desktop environments plus a bundle of applications.
Years back, Novell attempted to go head-to-head with Microsoft on every front, owning the WordPerfect office suite and the Unix System V operating system, which were supposed to displace Microsoft's Office and Windows NT respectively. Novell funded its bid for supremacy using the revenues from its NetWare network operating system -- at the time the de facto standard for office LANs. As NetWare's fortunes faded, Novell's ambitions reduced, and until its recent purchases of Linux companies SUSE and Ximian it seemed likely to end up -- like all former IT industry giants from Unisys down -- as basically a services company.
With Novell Linux Desktop (NLD), Novell is once again going up against Microsoft, this time with what looks like a more realistic and pragmatic strategy: making Linux business-like. Unlike Novell's more consumer-orientated SUSE Linux 10, NLD has been locked down and solidified, to give companies a stable platform against which to certify applications and hardware. Novell's Linux pages detail the ways in which this happens.
In practical terms, you can expect NLD to be less funky than SUSE, but more dependable.
NLD met our expectation of being a bit more staid than its zippier sibling from the outset, at the install stage. NLD preferred a standard 2.4GHz HP d330uT desktop, installing there with no trouble at all. It was, however, unwilling to install itself on the spanking new Acer C312XMi Tablet PC we offered it as an alternative -- despite the fact that SUSE Linux 10 had previously formed an intimate and happy relationship with the same system.
Like SUSE Linux 10, NLD uses the YaST2 setup tool, which helped us through the install in a dependable manner, giving us all the right warnings on security and presenting options clearly. As you'd expect, NLD's YaST2 offered fewer options than SUSE's.
The environment you end up in is a familiar Linux one, with many well-known packages plus few different tweaks. Like all good Linux distributions, NLD 9 includes the OpenOffice productivity suite and the Firefox browser; also included is the Gaim IM client and Novell's Evolution for email/contact management/calendar functions.
SUSE Linux 10 includes a lot of 'fun' applications, but NLD offers a more buttoned-down, businesslike package. For instance, SUSE has a telephony client, which NLD doesn't; SUSE has a civilisation game, whereas NLD's time-wasters are limited to offerings such as Blackjack, Mahjongg and Tetris.
The browser and IM clients worked first time on our (Windows-based) company network, and we located all of the corporate resources we needed. Installing a networked HP printer took seconds and worked fine.
For installing new and updated programs, NLD uses the Red Carpet software management tool, which Novell acquired with Ximian. Red Carpet is similar to Windows Update: users subscribe to channels for various software packages, and Red Carpet compares the installed software with updates that are available, prompting the user to retrieve any relevant ones.
NLD is designed to keep IT managers happy, so it comes with a programme of service packs that keep desktops in step without having to update and patch endless applications. The most recent one (SP2, delivered in August) takes all the bundled applications to an up-to-date version, and increases management control of the system.
Given Novell's move towards services, it's no surprise to find NLD sold like a service -- NLD costs €39 (~£27), but for business users that means €39 per year per user. The support element is renewable, and Novell's support operation offers a range of options, giving the whole distribution a much more corporate feel.
The desktop can be controlled through Novell's system management product, ZENworks, which can lock down many features included in NLD. This is a useful feature, as it can allow administrators to centrally turn off application functions that might cause a security risk, or else remove options that might confuse users and add to the load on the company's IT helpdesk. ZENworks can also manage and co-ordinate software updates. ZENworks is integrated with Red Carpet.
In Service Pack 2, lockdown features have been extended to the Nautilus file manager, the GNOME panel, Mozilla Firefox, the GNOME Control Center and other utilities.
The Evolution email/contact management/calendaring product works happily with Microsoft Exchange, but bizarrely, the NLD version we tried did not include the Exchange connector. This can be added easily enough, but it will involve extra work. Other email systems are supported, but ironically, support for Novell's groupware product, Groupwise, is still in beta.
Some companies may need to run particular Windows applications, which would have to be supported by another means -- perhaps accessing them remotely using Citrix or Microsoft Terminal Services (both of which have a client included in NLD). Alternatively, they can be run locally using VMWare, Crossover Office, Win4Lin or Wine. Novell's iFolders also provides support for shared network folders.
Corporate IT managers want something conservative, and may well be getting irritated with Microsoft's troubles over service packs, and the endless speculation about Windows Vista. With Linux Desktop, Novell has produced a distribution that may be conservative enough to attract big IT departments.