OpenSUSE 11.1 Vies for Desktop Linux Supremacy

Open SourceSoftware

Novell’s OpenSUSE 11.1 has desktop features and an enviable community involvement strategy for tapping community involvement, but still a few rough spots. Can it stand up to Red Hat Fedora and Ubuntu from Canonical?

The world of Linux and open-source operating systems is populated with what seems like an absurd number of competing options, with new ones popping up all the time. And yet, owing to the depth of their corporate and community support, a few particular Linux distributions command the bulk of our attention.

One such distribution, Novell’s OpenSUSE, reached its 11.1 release late last year, packed with the (at times, overreaching) desktop feature ambition on which the SUSE name was built, but also enhanced with the sort of community-embracing capabilities that the distribution will require to hang on to its prominence.

In particular, OpenSUSE 11.1 is the first release to ship since Novell’s OpenSUSE Build Service hit Version 1.0. The Build Service enables users to create, compile and host software packages for OpenSUSE, as well as for several other Linux distributions, such as SUSE Linux Enterprise, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora, and Ubuntu.

As in previous SUSE releases, OpenSUSE 11.1 seems to err on the side of complexity (or bloat, depending on your point of view) when it comes to packing in its desktop-focused features. For instance, my OpenSUSE installation gave me more configuration options for setting up my display settings than I’m accustomed to seeing from Red Hat or Ubuntu releases, but I had to use a combination of two separate, partially overlapping display settings tools to arrive at my desired setup.

In any case, OpenSUSE 11.1 is an excellent general-purpose Linux distribution that’s more focused on providing a friendly end-user experience than is the more leading-edge oriented Fedora. Although I still prefer the complete community support, software availability and system administration package that Ubuntu Linux offers, OpenSUSE 11.1 is a very compelling desktop option in its own right, and certainly worthy of consideration.

OpenSUSE 11.1 comes in versions for x86, AMD64 and PowerPC systems, and can be freely downloaded here. What’s more, the x86 and AMD64 flavors of the distribution are also available in a $60 (£49.99 from Amazon UK) boxed retail version that comes with 90-day installation support, physical media and a printed “Getting Started” guide.

I tested the x86 version of OpenSUSE 11.1 on a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 and on a virtual machine running under Sun Microsystems’ VirtualBox 2.0 desktop virtualization application. The distribution supported my hardware without issue, including suspend-to-disk (hibernate) and suspend-to-RAM power management scenarios.

While not strictly part of the distribution, the Build Service is a major advance for OpenSUSE. Package-based software management is one of the best attributes of the typical Linux-based operating system, and for volume markets such as the desktop, the success of a distribution is tied very closely to the success of the project’s software packaging efforts.

What’s more, the OpenSUSE build service is an open-source project in its own right, which offers proprietary software developers a route to creating OpenSUSE packages of their own wares, as well.

OpenSUSE’s Firefox installation comes conveniently preconfigured with a search provider for locating packages in the Build Service, which I used to seek out a desired software package that wasn’t available in OpenSUSE’s default software repositories, Mozilla’s Prism site-specific Web browser.

There was no Prism package already available in the Build Service, so I set out to build one of my own. After logging in through the service’s Web interface with my Novell account information, and conducting a bit of initial configuration for my Home project, I was ready to begin packaging.

I was pleased to find that the Build Service sported a “package wizard,” which stepped me through the packaging process across a series of Web forms. Ubuntu’s Personal Package Archive service, in contrast, requires more detailed knowledge of Debian-style packaging.
I ended up ditching my Prism packaging effort in favor of a simpler test case—the Mozilla build system is significantly more complicated than the typical configure, make, install process that’s required for most open-source applications.

However, as I worked my way through the Prism packaging process, I was impressed by the ease with which I could tweak the spec file and sources for my package, receive feedback on missing dependencies, and watch the build process unfold in a dynamic build log.

For instance, I noticed that OpenSUSE’s version of the standard GNOME System Monitor contained two more tabs than I’m accustomed to seeing in other GNOME-based distributions: a tab labeled “Hardware” and a tab labelled “ThinkPad.” The hardware tab included handy information about my system, such as my processor and graphics adapter models, alongside extraneous information, such as entries for device:BIOS, type:BIOS or device:Generic Monitor, type:Monitor.

The ThinkPad tab included additional information, such as temperature readings for my CPU, GPU and battery. The ThinkPad also reported my system’s docking station status, but reported it incorrectly. Meanwhile, a dock/undock applet that sat on my system’s task bar did correctly sense my ThinkPad’s docking station status.
Elsewhere, I received an error when I set out to print a document using a networked printer in our office that typically works without incident. The error was the result, I believe, of a Hewlett-Packard driver package that’s typically installed by default on Ubuntu or Fedora. However, the snag gave me the opportunity to try out OpenSUSE’s printer diagnose tool, which did lead me to the source of my print troubles.

On the topic of typically installed packages, I was surprised to find that the “zip” package required to create *.zip archives was not installed by default on my OpenSUSE instance. However, that package was simple enough to install on my own, either from the command line or with the system’s graphical package installer.

I appreciated the option of setting my OpenSUSE installation to fetch and apply updates automatically, without prompts for my credentials, as Ubuntu does. But I was occasionally met by runaway system notifications that scrolled up my display and refused to obey my “Do not show this again” button presses.
The Microsoft Angle

Novell is (in)famous for its interoperability and intellectual property agreements with Microsoft. I must say that I haven’t found OpenSUSE to be significantly more compatible with Microsoft products than are rival Linux distributions.

However, one significant example of openness to Microsoft products and technologies within Novell and the OpenSUSE project is that of Mono, the open-source implementation of Microsoft’s .NET Framework.

Software availability continues to be an obstacle to desktop Linux in general, and Mono holds promise for improving the state of cross-platform support for Windows and Linux applications. For instance, I was able to check out Silverlight-based content on a handful of Web pages through Moonlight, a Linux-friendly version of the Silverlight plug-in based on Mono.