Linux examined: OpenSUSE 11.0

This latest edition has some updates and improvements, but is not for the faint-of-heart

(I'm also not a big fan of the default partitioning scheme, which has separate root and home partitions; I much prefer a single unified root partition. However, that's more a matter of taste than a real knock against OpenSUSE.)

The other complaint I have is that OpenSUSE is a massive install. You need to download two multigigabyte DVDs or five CDs for a standard install.

On the other hand, OpenSUSE tries to be extremely desktop-agnostic. Novell's site makes two LiveCD versions available, one with GNOME and one with two versions of KDE. This means that OpenSUSE has a wealth of packages available on install, without requiring additional uploads. The only tricky part is finding where to choose them. You need to click on the Software link on the confirmation page in order to change what gets installed.

A solid distro

Once up, OpenSUSE looks pretty much like any other GNOME/KDE-based Linux distro. There are a few notable differences, however. Although OpenSUSE is based on RPM package installs like Red Hat's Fedora, OpenSUSE uses its own system administration and package management tool, called Yast2. Yast2 isn't particularly better or worse than competing geek-oriented system management tools, but it's different, and one more thing to learn if you're running a heterogeneous data center. (Of course, if you're going to centralize on OpenSUSE, you'll learn it once and move on.)

The big question is: Given that Red Hat bases its Fedora distribution on OpenSUSE, and that Fedora and OpenSUSE are both distributions with advanced features intended for power users, why would you pick one over the other? Fedora is marginally more widely supported in data centers and prebuilt software packages, but not enough to tip the scales one way or the other. But while they both have active developer communities and a support path, I prefer Novell's approach here: Novell's supported version of SUSE Linux is the same as the free OpenSUSE version, while Red Hat requires you to uninstall Fedora and install the commercial version (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) if you want full support.

At the end of the day, I guess it comes down to philosophy. Novell has gained some karma points for its aggressive defense of Linux against SCO, and the company has a history of fostering innovative open-source projects. Red Hat not so much. Novell has also spent a lot of time and effort on Windows integration with projects such as Mono, which lets .Net software run on Linux platforms; a necessary evil if Linux is going to play well in the corporate environment. These are all to the plus side of Novell.

On the other hand, Novell has cozied up pretty firmly with Microsoft lately in ways that have even some of its own employees speaking out. Novell signed a cross-patent agreement with Microsoft that many open-source advocates see as an admission by Novell that there's Microsoft intellectual property in Linux. These issues probably won't sway a corporate user against Novell; however, they're more persuasive to the die-hard free software crowd.

In summary, OpenSUSE 11.0 is a stable and powerful Linux distribution, but one that doesn't accommodate the inexperienced Linux user. It may be just the thing for your servers, but day-to-day and even business desktop users may want to lean toward a more user-friendly distribution.

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