Bleeding-Edge Linux Desktop: SuSE Linux Professional 9.3

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-07-05

Bleeding-Edge Linux Desktop: SuSE Linux Professional 9.3

Novell Inc.s SuSE Linux Professional 9.3 desktop gives not only other leading Linux desktop distributions like Xandros a run for their money, but also enterprise desktops such as Windows XP Pro.

Nat Friedman, vice president of Linux desktop engineering at Novell, said, "We are getting ahead of Windows for the first time."

After kicking SLP 9.3s tires, I agree. This is one impressive desktop distribution. It has every Linux application that anyone is ever likely to want and its all tied together with either a slick and up-to-date KDE or GNOME interface.

It is not, however, for everyone and it also has its fair share of teething problems in its most advanced programs.

This is a Linux desktop for people who know Linux. No, it doesnt require the level of expertise that say the Ubuntu distribution does, but youre also not going to mistake SLP for such easy-to-use Linux distributions as Xandros, Linspire or even Novells own Novell Linux Desktop.

No, this is a distribution for someone who wants to push the limits of what you can do with a Linux desktop today.

Click here to read reviews of Fedora Core 4 and Debian 3.1.

In short, if youre a developer, a power users power user, or someone who needs to see what 2006s corporate Linux desktop is going to look like, this is the distribution for you.

In addition, if youre a reseller or integrator who wants to get a head start on where the Linux desktop is going, this distribution will be well worth your time.

SLP is built on top of the 2.6.11 Linux kernel and your choice of either the KDE 3.4 or GNOME 2.10 interface.

It also has the latest in Linux desktop software. This includes the Firefox 1.01 Web browser, the Novell Evolution 2.2.1 groupware client, and Adobe Reader 7 for Linux.

In addition, this distribution ships with a late beta of 2.0, the latest version of the popular desktop application suite; the VOIP (voice over IP) Linphone client; iPod compatibility; and the F-Spot photo-management program, open-sources answer to Google Inc.s outstanding Windows freeware Picasa 2.

If you dont happen to like those mainstay applications of the Linux desktop, SuSE also includes such popular programs as Epiphany 1.6 and Opera 7.54 for Web browsing, and AbiWord 2.2.4 for word processing.

Developers will also find a lot to like in SLP 9.3. It includes pretty much everything needed to write programs in C, C++, Java, Mono, Perl, Python, and a slew of other languages.

SLP though, is not a grab bag of cutting-edge Linux and open-source technologies. Its a well-integrated desktop with the most commonly used programs easily at hand.

Read eWEEK Labs review of SuSE Linux Professional 9.3 here.

It also works and plays well with Windows networks. My one quibble is that, unlike Xandros, connecting an SLP desktop to a Windows or Samba SMB (Server Message Block) resource such as a network drive or printer is a two-step operation.

First, you need to identify the resource by its fully qualified resource name. For example, on my network, I needed to recall that my main, common work drive is named trinity/j (server name/resource name), then I had to manually enter that information into the KNetAttach application before I could access the resource.

Its not a real problem, but pointing and clicking to achieve the same results in either Windows or Xandros is just easier.

Next page: Patches and installation.

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A related minor annoyance is that OpenOffice 2 will not save to SMB drives. At first I thought this was the result of a known Linux bug, which can be fixed by simply inserting the line "unix extensions = no" into Sambas master configuration file, smb.conf, but this time this workaround didnt take. So, I had to save my OpenOffice files to a local drive and then copy them over to my SMB drive.

Im sure Novell will deliver a fix for this problem soon, though. In the weeks that Ive been using SLP, Ive automatically and transparently received such updates as the security fix to Firefox, which brings it to version 1.03, and the latest version of Adobe Acrobat for Linux, via its automatic update program, SuSE Watcher.

This program can be set to check daily for security patches; users can decide to have any patches or new programs automatically installed or choose to select only those items they want installed. In either case, SuSE Watcher then invokes the master SLP administration program YaST, and it proceeds automatically from there.

Installations and patches have never been easier.

Which Linux desktop is right for you? Click here to find out.

As a higher-end Linux distribution, you could run SLP on a slow Pentium with as little as 128MB of RAM and 500MB of hard-drive room. Lets not be silly about this, though. Youll be much better off with at least a 1GHz Pentium-class chip, 256MB of RAM and 2.5GB of storage space.

For my test run, I really wanted to see what SLP 9.3 could do, so instead of putting it on one of my older, slower machines, I installed it on an inexpensive Insignia 300a, Best Buys house brand desktop PC.

This box comes with a 2.8 GHz Pentium IV, 512MB of RAM, and an Ultra ATA/100, 7200 RPM, 60GB hard drive. The system also came with Windows XP Home. Since I have no use for XP Home—XP Pro is a different story—I blew it away. Had I wanted to though, I could have kept XP Home around and run the system in a dual-boot configuration.

The total installation time was about an hour. Most of that was spent syncing the desktop up with my Hybrid Mode NT Domain/Active Directory-based LAN. The actual installation was a snap … for someone who knows Linux 101.

The installation was, however, complex enough to move SLP 9.3 out of the realm of such beginner-ready Linux distributions as Xandros 3 or Linspire 5.

Once up, SLP ran well, but far from flawlessly.

The core operating system and all the fundamental applications worked well. The problem children were the newer, more interesting programs.

The first problem I ran into was that Im a confirmed KDE user. Ive nothing against the GNOME interface; I just prefer KDE and use it on all my machines. And, no question about it, SLPs KDE 3.4, with such new handy features as better right-button context, works well.

Next page: Beagle still needs housebreaking.

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Unfortunately, one of the neatest new features of SLS 9.3, Beagle, a desktop metadata search program that indexes a users hard drive content in a way thats similar to Google Desktop 2 or Apples Spotlight on steroids, doesnt run by default on the KDE interface.

Thats somewhat understandable since its a GNOME application, but since Beagle has easily gotten the most buzz of any single application on SLP 9.3, youd think Novell would at least install it so that it was easy to get to from the KDE interface.

Well, I found that not only was it not easy, it was practically impossible. Now, Im sure theres some way to get Beagle to run under KDE, but after a lot of searching and testing of possible solutions, I couldnt find one that would work.

If you do elect to explore running Beagle, in a GNOME instance, under KDE, the best map to possible success is this Gentoo Linux Beagle Install page.

The best general guide to the care and feeding of your Beagle is the Beagle Wiki.

In my case, I finally just switched SLP over from KDE to GNOME 2.10 for its interface. Now, I could finally get Beagle to work.

First, however, I had to manually set its indexing engine to work. To get Beagle up and chasing data you need to open a terminal window and start the Beagle Daemon, its indexer and search engine, by running "$ beagled" from your $HOME directory. This must be done as a user; you cannot run it as root.

If you want to check up on it, you can also run it in the foreground with: $ beagled —fg –debug.

To make sense of the debugging output, you can get started with this information from Novells Dave Camp.

Even with it up, as it comes in SLP 9.3, Beagle isnt able to index or search many kind of files, including Firefox Web pages, Evolution mail or Microsoft Office documents. To add support for those files and others, youll need to follow the instructions in the BeagleWikis Optional Packages page.

There are also some data files, such as Thunderbird or Mozilla mail, that Beagle cant read. Or, to be more exact, there is a backend for them in the source code that you can activate by recompiling the program with a suitably revised Makefile.

Now, once I was done with all this, Beagle lived up to its hype as the Jaguar of desktop search programs. Unfortunately, it also lived up to a number of other characteristics of that British luxury car: it tended to break down a lot.

In particular, while this version has fewer memory leaks than the earlier versions, it will still keep eating memory until your machine stops working. In my case, that was about 50 hours.

Until these leaks are fixed, your best approach is to set up a cron job to run every night to kill off and restart beagled.

So why bother with all this? Well, when Beagle delivers, it really delivers. Ive already found its ability to index and find information seconds after Ive written it, in, say, a Gaim 1.1.4 IM session, to be invaluable.

Next page: The Xen of PCs.

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Professional also includes Xen 2.05 virtualization software. This enables x86 SLP users to run multiple operating systems simultaneously in a manner similar to VMware Inc.s VMware Workstation 5.

While not of much use to most office workers, Xens virtualization can be very handy for both developers and support staffs. Developers are able to quickly explore different deployment scenarios for their software without leaving their machines. Help desk staffs, on the other hand, can use the same virtualization technology to troubleshoot an end users desktop.

Unfortunately, like Beagle, Xen is rough around the edges. If youre going to use Xen, you need to make that decision before installing SLP 9.3. For it to work at all, youll need to install a special Xen-enabled kernel.

For now, you can only run other instances of Linux. Windows XP and 2003 support are coming, but its not here yet.

After that, be prepared for a bumpy ride. Chris Schlaeger, Novells vice president of engineering for Linux, said, "It will work on Professional, but were not going to say its ready for enterprise use, because its not."

Hes got that right. I wont even bother to list all the troubles Ive seen. Suffice it to say that I can run several Linux instances with Xen, but I need to keep a close eye on system resources and exactly what libraries are being called by what programs. Still, like Beagle, theres more than enough there to show Xens promise. Just dont try to run any production code yet on Xen.

What it all adds up to in the end is that if you need an advanced Linux desktop, SLP is an excellent choice. Its also great for people who need to look right over the bleeding edge of Linux technology to see what tomorrow will bring. However, for beginners or general desktop users, there are better choices.

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