2008 will be a very good vintage for community end-user Linux distributions. So far, we've seen the release of Ubuntu 8.04, which is universally considered to be a major milestone release in usability and device compatibility, and one of the easiest distros to install. While not as widely lauded, we have also recently seen the release of Fedora Core 9, Red Hat's community development and bleeding edge technology testing platform, which was the first to implement the production release of KDE 4.0 as well as pilot the development version of the Ext4 journaling filesystem.
I must admit, however, to having a particularly strong interest in OpenSUSE, Novell's entry into the community Linux distro fray. It could be said that in an indirect way, there's a little bit of my DNA in the product. Back in May of 2005, I wrote the following in a column about the fate of SuSE in Linux Magazine:
"It's pretty darn clear to me that to make mojo, SuSE Linux Professional needs to look deep into its roots and re-birth itself as a public, open source project similar to Fedora. While Novell executives might think twice about copy-catting Red Hat and many of Novell's critics would undoubtedly categorize such a response as a knee-jerk reaction and a Johnny-come-lately, there are a number of reasons for Fedora-izing SuSE Linux. Heck, I think it would be a better Fedora than Fedora."
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It was only three months later I was contacted by Novell executives and was informed that my pleas were heard and my wishes had been granted. SuSE Linux Professional would be set free, as OpenSUSE. There were some unexpected twists, however. Not only would OpenSUSE be a technology test-bed like Fedora and full of developer goodies, but also it would be Novell's mass-market end-user consumer Linux desktop, and be fully supported by the company with stable releases and long term support.
This differs greatly from Fedora which is a strictly community-supported affair and has relatively short life spans for each release. Compared to that of OpenSUSE and Ubuntu, a Fedora release lifecycle is analogous to a fruit fly's. That being said, the first three releases of OpenSUSE were rough. 10.0, 10.1, and 10.2 were plagued with a number of performance and stability problems, much of which were related to a completely redesigned package management system that attempted to combine many of the Red Carpet technologies brought in from the Ximian acquisition and their ZEN line of systems management products.
Many of us felt that the new libzypp packaging and software update technology wasn't ready for prime time, and that they should have maintained the original YAST repository format and updater programs until the new system was stable. Still, the OpenSUSE developers pressed on, and in 2007, released version 10.3, which sported a highly customized GNOME GUI and completely re-worked user Control Panel, that was designed from the ground up from Novell-sponsored usability studies, and was one of the first distributions to include the 3D Compiz composite windowing manager.
The result was something that seemed like a mesh of Windows Vista and Macintosh, but in a good way. The packaging and update software was better, but it was still pretty slow, and you needed a fairly hefty box to take advantage of the best features of the distro. Granted, far less than Vista, but it still required a significant amount of system resources to run well.
OpenSUSE 11.0 Release Candidate 1
Flash forward to Memorial Day weekend, 2008 -- and the first release candidate of OpenSUSE 11 is released into the wild.
OpenSUSE is not a small distribution. In fact, it would be safe to day it DOES contain the veritable kitchen sink and everything an end-user could ever possibly want installed by default. I have always referred to SUSE as the "Deluxe" of Linux distributions, and with good reason -- a full 4.5GB OpenSUSE DVD is packed like a Tokyo subway car, leaving almost no room to spare, with thousands of packages -- this includes complete, fully integrated builds of GNOME 2.22, KDE 4.0.3 and XFCE. An installable "Live CD" installable version, with your choice of GNOME or KDE, targeted towards the impatient and for less resource intensive systems with much fewer packages included are also available.The first thing you'll notice about OpenSUSE 11 is the completely renovated installer program. In fact, I'd have to say that next to Mac, this is probably the most beautiful installer program I have ever seen. Beauty isn't just skin deep, however -- a lot of time and work has been invested to make the SUSE installer faster and easier to use. A complete install, with everything, including GNOME, KDE, XFCE and the development and server packages -- sans the multilingual documentation selected on my ThinkPad T60, with a 32-bit 1.8Ghz Core Duo and 2GB of RAM took approximately 40 minutes. That ain't too shabby for a full DVD worth of stuff.
I am also quite impressed with how fast the package repository management works in the RC1 release. In 10.3, the initial repository setup could take up to a half an hour, and would frequently bomb out. Not with 11.0 -- a dozen repos, which include the vast user-contributed PACKMAN in Germany as well as the newly launched OpenSUSE build service, only took a few minutes to set up. The new software update utility is also significantly faster and much more stable. For those of you who prefer a command line, the "zypper" utility will provide a similar experience to "yum" or "apt-get" on Fedora/Red Hat and Ubuntu/Debian, respectively.
One of the things that I noticed was that OpenSUSE is probably one of the most virtualization-enabled Linux distributions an end-user can get their hands on. The 64-bit x86 version (a PowerPC version for Mac and IBM POWER hardware is also available) includes the Xen hypervisor and paravirtualized kernel and works more-or-less out of the box enabled to run fully accelerated on Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor on Windows Server 2008, provided you install Microsoft's hypercall adapter drivers, which fully support SUSE OSes. It also includes Sun's VirtualBox software as well as QEMU, a GUI front-end to the KVM kernel virtual machine monitor.
What I was most impressed with, however, was that OpenSUSE was pre-configured with VMWare's openvmtools and didn't require any special configuration to make it run fully accelerated and optimized for VMWare Server 2.0, ESX 3.5, Workstation 6 or VMWare Player 2.0. On most Linux distributions, this requires installing kernel sources/headers and compiler tools as a prerequisite if your distribution doesn't have a natively built guest balloon memory driver module, mouse module, X drivers and virtual networking drivers built for it in the VMWare Tools installer. For a virtualization junkie like me, it made OpenSUSE a very easy sell for cloned virtual LAMP server configs on my VMWare Server and ESX boxes.
The GNOME UI in 11.0 seems to be more of an evolution than a revolution - short of the improved packaged management and tweaked control panels and required package versioning updates that you would expect, the GNOME implementation looks virtually identical to 10.3's. This is not a bad thing, as 10.3 introduced an excellent community build of the Novell-tweaked version that had already been released in SLED 10, Novell's corporate Linux desktop. It's about as nice a GNOME as you are going to find on any Linux distribution.
KDE 4, however, is a significant departure from the 3.5 interface in 10.3. What can I say? The desktop is utterly gorgeous, and clearly very Mac-inspired with all sorts of animated doo-dads and bells and whistles. However, at least in this release candidate, I encountered a number of stability issues, particularly with the Konqueror browser (KDE's answer to IE 7 and GNOME's Nautilus file manager) and network access. Presumably, this is still a work in progress and they are still fixing some last minute showstopper bugs, but the release of OpenSUSE 11 is only a few weeks away.
I've only begun to scratch the surface of this vast and powerful Linux distribution. Many improvements in usability, performance and stability have been made, enough that OpenSUSE has won me back as an end-user. However, I would still say at this point in the distro's evolution, it is not the Linux for the masses or even for the people. It remains true to its roots, which was and still is for power users with systems that can fully take advantage of everything it has to offer. If Ubuntu is a Volkswagen, then OpenSUSE is a Mercedes-Benz.
What's your take on OpenSUSE 11? Talk Back and Let Me Know.