openSUSE Education 11.3 - still not there yet

Is it openSUSE or their educational package that's the problem? Hardware and installer issues certainly suggest that the problem lies with Novell, not a hugely dedicated group who wants students to have access to the best FOSS available.

I really wanted to love the latest version of openSUSE's education-oriented distribution, Li-F-E (Linux For Education). It was released this weekend, alongside version 11.3 of the main openSUSE distribution, and was incredibly promising with a host of great features. Ultimately, though, it was let down by poor hardware support and a glitchy installer that left me anxious to switch back to Ubuntu.

openSUSE is Novell's community-driven, free Linux distribution. It's powerful, fast, and feature-rich. Layer on a group of super-smart, completely dedicated educators/developers/volunteers who run the Education group and it would seem that you have a recipe for success. According to the group's website,

This release includes carefully selected softwares for students, educators as well as parents. The software selection encompasses everything required to make computers productive for either home or educational use.

They really do seem to be on the right track with their kitchen sink approach to creating a Live DVD of the latest openSUSE distribution paired with all of the major open source educational server and desktop software projects pre-installed. This includes everything from a fully-functional web server (a full LAMP implementation is included) to Moodle to openSIS to an open source LOGO implementation. Full terminal services are also built in and it can be run from a live DVD or USB stick for testing or installed directly from either medium. Good stuff, right? Users can even choose from both KDE and GNOME (the major Linux desktop environments) or Sugar (a truly revolutionary desktop environment designed originally for the OLPC project).

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And then the installer crawls. And hangs. Or not (one laptop took 2 tries to install, one aging server hung 3 times during the install before I just gave up, and one aging P4 desktop installed with no issues). The partitioner that sets up the disks for use on the system is fine for technically adept users, but those with limited Linux experience will struggle with its somewhat cryptic messages and kludgy resizing/dual-booting dialogs (which are, albeit, much improved).

And then wireless doesn't work out of the box (this seems to be an issue with Broadcom being unwilling to play nice with open source developers, but in my case on my Dell Latitude 2110, runs through the steps outlined on most of the SUSE forums didn't resolve my issue. Could I dig further and sort it out? Of course I could, but what about a relatively Windows-savvy teacher who just wants to save on licensing costs and try some new tools with his students?

And then the applications menu randomly disappears.

And then the appropriate directories for Moodle and the other server tools are copied to the correct locations, but these web services still need to be set up and fully configured. After you find the wizard for turning on and configuring the web server.

These aren't insurmountable obstacles by any means, particularly when the Edu Li-F-E DVD offers so much software in one little disk. But for people looking to try Linux or hoping for a quick installation that "just works" or even experienced educational administrators looking for a turnkey Linux server or desktop environment may be disappointed.

Li-F-E, in its most recent incarnation, is a showcase of the wealth of software from the open source communities available both on the server and desktop client to support education. I have to applaud the openSUSE education team for bringing it all together in one place. I also still need to recommend that educators wanting to bring Linux into their schools approach Li-F-E with some caution and more time for troubleshooting than they'd need for Ubuntu. It's important to note, after all, that all of the great software aggregated in openSUSE's Li-F-E project can be had on just about any major desktop/server Linux distribution. And Ubuntu just happens to install faster and very reliably, support Broadcom wireless out of the box, and share the same OS platform across enterprises (instead of relegating experimental features to a community-supported free version like openSUSE and RedHat's Fedora Project).