OpenSUSE update (also, just what is a distribution?)

So this weekend wasn't quite as productive as I'd hoped in terms of my foray into testing and documentation for OpenSUSE. Between a wedding in New Hampshire and a shed that needed building (don't believe the salespeople - an afternoon project this is not, especially when your best helper is a five-year old), I didn't make much progress on that front.

So this weekend wasn't quite as productive as I'd hoped in terms of my foray into testing and documentation for OpenSUSE. Between a wedding in New Hampshire and a shed that needed building (don't believe the salespeople - an afternoon project this is not, especially when your best helper is a five-year old), I didn't make much progress on that front.

However, I'm back on track now, the shed just needs a roof, and the latest alpha release is now installing on the main family computer. The kids, of course, are horrified at the concept of downtime, but I've thoughtfully backed up everything and set up a spare computer for them. They have, however, become accustomed to three computers (1 Edubuntu server and 2 thin clients), so a week of 1 Windows machine could get a bit ugly. We'll see. My oldest son's comment first thing this morning was, "But that's Windows...I'll wait for Linux to finish installing." (Yes! Another recruit!)

I figured I'd take this opportunity, though, to run through installation of OpenSUSE, especially since its installation is similar to many other distributions. As with some of the other articles I'm posting this summer, I'm going to take a fairly non-technical approach, so feel free to skip ahead if I'm moving too slow.

I'm also going to limit this post to examining the various distributions available through OpenSUSE and a discussion of Linux distribution models. The next post (check back tomorrow morning) will go over the specifics of installing two of the openSUSE distributions.

So what is a distribution, also known as a distro, for those of us who just can't bring ourselves to utter the extra 2 syllables? It's a particular packaging of the Linux operating system and usually includes a specific look and feel, as well as whatever software the vendor chooses to include. Such software is often the desktop environment (see Your mom Kubuntus for an explanation of desktop environments), OpenOffice, and all of the drivers necessary to get your system up and running.

Most often, distributions are simply CD or DVD images. If you download the image, then you can use a variety of free software to burn the image onto a blank CD or DVD, assuming you have a CD or DVD writer. If you are already running Linux, then you probably have tools like K3b to burn these images. If you are running Windows, then you may need to download a tool like isorecorder.

Regardless of which tool you use, the result will be a CD or DVD from which you can boot your system. This means that if you restart your computer with the CD/DVD in the drive (assuming that your computer is set to look at your optical drive when it is turned on; ask your resident geek to reset your BIOS if you have any problems. We'll save BIOS changes for an article later this summer), then the computer will attempt to install whatever operating system is loaded on the disk.

So which operating system will it be? If you go to the openSUSE website, there are 4 separate architectures (or types of computers) for which you can download and install OpenSUSE. There are also 2 different releases (the current 10.2 version and the 10.3 version used for testing and development). You can download via HTTP or Bit Torrent. Finally, you can download multiple CDs images, a single DVD image, or, for some architectures, you can download a single CD which gets most of the installation information from the Internet. Whew! While SUSE has a particularly wide range of download options, this is not uncommon.

So here's what you need to know. Most people have 32-bit PCs, namely the "i386" architecture on the SUSE site. Unless you have a Macintosh (without one of the newer Intel chips), you can use this distribution. Stay away from the 10.3 version now as there are many pieces of this distribution that are still unstable. If you know that you have a 64-bit processor (AMD Athlons or Turions, Intel Xeons or Core 2 Duos) then you can also use the X86-64 version. However, if you are at all unsure, stick with the i386. Most people won't notice a major difference between the two and there are still occasional problems with most 64-bit operating systems (both Windows and Linux) in terms of getting things like printers to work correctly.

If you happen to have a Mac from the days before Apple started loading them with Intel processors, then you should choose the PPC (PowerPC) version. Everything else stays the same.

If you have a fast connection, your easiest choice for download is HTTP CD or DVD images. If you have a DVD burner, certainly go for the DVDs. Otherwise, the single CD installation may be a great choice. With this image, once the installation starts, you need a constant, high-speed Internet connection to finish the installation.

Bit Torrents are great technology and if you are familiar with using them, then I encourage you to download your images this way. It also helps with the distribution of the software. I won't spend much time on Bit Torrents for novices, now, though.

These options (Bit Torrent vs HTTP and type of architecture) are seen throughout Linux land. If you can navigate these choices, then you will be well-equipped to start experimenting.

Check back tomorrow for specific installation instructions and tips for new Linux installers, including the joys of live CDs.