For the past few years, Novell's Linux platform advertisements-aimed, presumably, at corporate IT managers-have carried the slogan: "Your Linux is Ready." Novell's tagline is particularly apt when applied to the company's line of desktop Linux offerings, the latest of which, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11, began shipping the week of March 23.
After all, since Novell's big, Red-Hatted Linux rival has approached the desktop as more of a research project than a commercial product, it's been left to Novell to satisfy all the checklist items that an enterprise IT manager might demand in order to brand a Linux desktop "ready."
Based on my tests so far of SLED 11, I've found Novell's new Linux offering to be a solid desktop operating system with a set of features and support options that are well tuned for enterprises-particularly those looking to integrate the Linux desktop into a Microsoft-centric infrastructure.
As far as appearances and hardware support are concerned, SLED 11 is extremely close to the OpenSUSE 11.1 release that I reviewed in February. What sets SLED 11 apart from its community-centric sibling-beyond the fact that Novell offers no paid support options for OpenSUSE-is that SLED 11 ships with a noticeably smaller range of ready-to-install software packages. This SLED limitation was my primary complaint about the last major Novell enterprise desktop release, SLED 10, when I reviewed it nearly three years ago.
To be sure, SLED 11 ships with all the desktop Linux basics, such as the Firefox Web browser, OpenOffice.org productivity suite, and Evolution mail and calendaring client. What's more, the versions of these applications that ship with SLED come sprinkled with Microsoft interoperability pixie dust. Firefox comes with support for version one Silverlight content via the Mono-based Moonlight; OpenOffice.org sports enhanced MS Office file format and macro compatibility; and Evolution boasts Exchange MAPI and PST file support.
And yet, as with SLED 10, it didn't take long during my tests of version 11 to bump up against missing software packages. For instance, I am accustomed to using the text editor nano to tweak configuration files on Linux systems, and SLED 11 lacks this package.
I could adjust my habits to use a different application, or-as I found suggested on one of Novell's forums in response to a user seeking out nano or its work-alike pico-I could download the source code and compile my own package. However, these are needless workarounds that take time away from the task at hand and, in the compile-your-own case, leave SLED in a less manageable state.
If Linux desktops are to remain consigned to restrictive, locked-down environments such as call center workstations, then a constrained selection of software packages shouldn't be a problem. However, unlike Red Hat, which sells a very spare desktop version of its Enterprise Linux for just this sort of environment, Novell is pitching SLED 11 as a mainstream desktop option.
I would like to see Novell reorganize its desktop Linux efforts more along the lines of what Canonical and the Ubuntu Linux project have done. The core of every Ubuntu release is comprised of packages for which Canonical offers explicit support. Available for installation alongside these packages is a separate-and much larger-repository of community-supported software packages.
Novell's SLED 11 is available via subscription, with Basic, Standard and Priority subscription plans that differ in cost and support services. All three plans include access to maintenance updates and security patches during the subscription terms, and cover support for an unlimited number of virtual machines.
Basic subscriptions include 30 days of telephone and e-mail-based support and cost, per system, $50 for one year or $125 for three years. Standard subscriptions cost $125 for one year and $324 for three years, and include telephone and e-mail support over the full support term. Priority subscriptions cost $220 for one year and $590 for three years, and improve upon the Standard plan's 12/5 support hours with 24/7 support.
Novell's support pricing for SLED 11 compares well with that of Canonical's Ubuntu Linux, which costs $250 per desktop per year for the equivalent of Novell's Standard support plan, and $900 per year for the equivalent of Novell's Priority support. On the other hand, support for Ubuntu Linux is optional, as the distribution is available for free download, with security and bugfix updates that are accessible to anyone.
Beyond differences in support costs, SLED ships with a handful of applications included in its price that would add cost to an Ubuntu desktop, such as support for MP3 and DVD playback. These features are available freely on Ubuntu or any other Linux desktop, but due to patent encumbrances, the open-source implementations of these functions are of murky legality.
What's more, according to Novell, the client software for Likewise Enterprise, which enables companies to use Microsoft Active Directory and Group Policy to handle identity and management tasks on Linux desktops, will be available through SLED's software repositories in a few weeks at no additional cost. Likewise Enterprise pricing begins at $59 per seat, so its inclusion in SLED means a nice price savings for companies that wish to bring Novell's Linux desktop under a Microsoft management structure.
SLED 11 also compares favorably with Windows Vista on price, at least when you consider Windows Vista Enterprise with Software Assurance. Microsoft is secretive about its Software Assurance pricing for Windows, but Novell is citing Vista Enterprise prices that start around $333 per desktop per year.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.