What's Up with openSuSE?

This post is not intended as criticism of the openSuSE project in any way. Most of what I am writing about here concerns their next release, which is currently at Milestone 5.

This post is not intended as criticism of the openSuSE project in any way. Most of what I am writing about here concerns their next release, which is currently at Milestone 5. I understand quite well what pre-release software is, and the uncertainty and instability it can be subject to. What I am trying to do is bring some attention to something I have noticed, which concerns me, and perhaps get some comments from others who have similar/better/worse experiences. If I am very lucky, I might even hear from someone who can point out that I am doing something wrong!

There has been quite a bit of commentary and speculation about the Novell takeover and the possible impact on the SuSE/openSuSE products and development. (Note that I am avoiding the patent controversy here, intentionally.) The official statements from Novell and SuSE have been basically that there should be little or no impact, product development and releases should continue as normal. However, I have been following the openSuSE 11.4 (factory) pre-release development pretty closely because some of the newest things being developed are important to my Lenovo S10-3s netbook (Broadcom brcm, and Synaptics ClickPad). What I have seen and experienced since the sale/takeover was announced has been troubling - or else I am doing something wrong.

First, the openSuSE ISO images are supposed to be what they call "hybrid images", which can either be burned to a CD/DVD or copied directly to a USB flash drive. Writing to USB can be done either directly with dd (for hard-core old geezers like me), or using the openSuSE Imagewriter utility. It has always worked quite well for me, until sometime around their 11.4 Milestone 5 release. Suddenly, the USB image wouldn't boot. I tried both the 32 and 64 bit images, and I tried using both dd and Imagewriter, and it just won't boot. It goes through what should be a process of reconfiguring the disk label, and then panics. Ugh. It still works when burned to a CD, so the basic Live image is ok. When this first happened, I believe it was shortly before Christmas, I assumed that it would be noticed and fixed in short order. It has been this way for a month now, and it is still the same as of the most recent daily, Build 1030.

Second, according to the published development schedule there should have been a Milestone 6 release last Thursday. There has been no sign of the release, and I have not seen any comment or explanation from the development team. They are certainly not known for meeting their planned target dates, but this seems exceptionally late, even for open SuSE.

Third, the latest daily (Build 1030) Live image runs exceptionally poorly when booted from CD, and even after being installed and booted from a hard drive. Even considering that this is a pre-release / development version, it really is quite grim, and it seems to me that this is very late in the development cycle for it to take such a turn.

So, as I said, I know that I am talking about pre-release software here, and I know that the release information say that it might stop working at any time, and so on. Maybe I am just doing something wrong/silly in not being able to get the LiveUSB image to boot any more (although I did go back and download the 11.3 image, and it still converts to USB and boots just fine). Maybe the horrible performance problems are just because of the continuing development of KDE 4, and the horrible appearance of Firefox (it looks like something running with Motif from about 10 years ago) is because they are using a beta release of that as well. Maybe by the time I have finished writing this, they will have released Milestone 6, and it will boot and run reasonably well, as the previous Milestones did. But on the other hand, maybe all of this is an indication of internal turmoil on the project, or some other side effect of the recent commercial developments.

If anyone else has been trying the openSuSE factory builds, and has either noticed similar problems or perhaps has avoided/solved them by doing something that I haven't thought of, I would love to hear about it. Of course, if anyone has any insight into what is going on internally which might have a bearing on this, I'd love to hear about that as well.

jw 25/1/2011