Review: Novell’s OpenSUSE 11.2

Open SourceSoftwareWorkspace

Novell’s OpenSUSE 11.2 comes packaged with some of the best open-source software, while setting itself apart from Linux rivals with its focus on power users

Software Sources

During the past few years, Novell and the OpenSUSE project have been building tools and Web-based services that enable anyone to create ready-to-install software packages for OpenSUSE and other Linux distributions. OpenSUSE isn’t the only distribution to boast a volunteer software packaging community, but OpenSUSE 11.2 makes the process of finding and configuring these packages faster and simpler than any other Linux option I’ve tested. For instance, both OpenSUSE and Ubuntu include a tool for configuring networked software repositories, but where Ubuntu requires users to locate and manually enter repository details into the tool, OpenSUSE offers up a list of popular community repositories from within the tool.

The list of community software sources that appears within the OpenSUSE repository tool is limited to well-established projects, such as those for, Mono and Mozilla, but it isn’t much more difficult to subscribe to smaller packaging efforts. I could, for instance, find and install packages from the OpenSUSE Build Service by visiting the Web front end for the service, searching for my desired package and clicking a “one click” install button.

After clicking the one-click button next to my chosen package, my OpenSUSE test machine presented me with a dialog from which I could opt to subscribe to the package’s repository, to fetch later updates or to not subscribe, to avoid pulling in any future packages. In some cases, choosing a package from one repository would pull in multiple other repositories.

Also new in OpenSUSE 11.2 is a tool called webpin that’s meant to allow users to search for packages hosted at the OpenSUSE Build Service without having to visit the OBS Website to search for them. During my tests leading up to the OpenSUSE 11.2 launch, this feature wasn’t yet working for 11.2, as the back-end Web service on which it relies hadn’t yet been updated to support the new version.

Once I selected a new repository to configure, OpenSUSE would ask me whether I wished to import the cryptographic key with which packages from that repository were signed. Both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE are configured by default to prefer that packages be cryptographically signed. However, on Ubuntu, importing a repository key is a manual, multipart process, while importing a key on OpenSUSE is a matter of clicking the “import” button on a pop-up dialog that appears after you choose to subscribe to a repository.

Also on the package management front, OpenSUSE 11.2 is the first OpenSUSE version where in-place, network-based system upgrades are considered a supported upgrade scenario. The distribution update command “zypper dup” goes beyond a regular update by uninstalling packages to make way for new ones, if need be. This command, when combined with an assortment of software repositories with overlapping packages, can lead to warring upgrades unless users assign their repositories priority scores in the software sources tool.

OpenSUSE 11.2 ships with the PackageKit framework for installing software. This framework offers the benefit of running without root privileges until it requires elevated rights to do its work.

During my tests of OpenSUSE, I found that my software update and installation operations were frequently blocked while the service that backs PackageKit went about its business in the background. This service never took too long to do its work, but these blocks added to a sense that OpenSUSE’s right hand often seemed unaware of what its left hand was doing.

In future versions, I hope to see PackageKit better integrated with the distribution.

Other Highlights

I was pleased to find that OpenSUSE now offers an option for full volume encryption (with the exception of the boot partition). This brings the distribution even with Fedora and Ubuntu, both of which have offered this sort of encryption in their past few releases. Like Ubuntu 9.10, OpenSUSE 11.2 offers an option for encrypting user home directories.

Unlike Ubuntu and Fedora, OpenSUSE offers users a check-box option of creating a separate home partition, which can be handy for preserving user data while switching among distributions or versions. I also noted that when I opted for a partitioning set-up based on LVM (Logical Volume Management), the OpenSUSE installer suggested adequate root and home partition sizes, leaving the rest of the disk open for other uses.

SUSE distributions have long set themselves apart from the rest of the Linux pack on the strength of their graphical administration tools, and Version 11.2 continues in this tradition with a new partitioning tool that appears both in the system installer and in the Yast config tool set.