Novell SUSE Manager 1.2 Taps Red Hat Technology to Rein In Enterprise Linux Servers

Early-version hiccups aside, Novell's new Spacewalk-based server management tool wins points for its support of both SUSE and Red Hat enterprise Linux flavors.

Novell's SUSE Manager 1.2 provides users of the company's enterprise-oriented Linux-based operating systems with a server-management tool built from the ground up with Linux in mind. SUSE Manager, which began shipping in March, is based on Spacewalk 1.3, an open-source project born out of Red Hat's own server-management product, Satellite, whose code Red Hat freed in 2008.

Administrators familiar with Satellite, and its hosted counterpart, the RHN (Red Hat Network), will feel right at home with SUSE Manager, and Novell has also worked to make systems running RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) at home within SUSE Manager. With Novell's SLES Expanded (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server with expanded support), organizations can pay Novell to support their RHEL systems, and can continue managing these systems from within SUSE Manager.

I tested SUSE Manager 1.2 with test servers running SLES 11 SP1 and with RHEL 6. Once I had everything set up correctly, the product worked as advertised.

Check out eWEEK Labs' slide show of SUSE Manager 1.2 in action.

On my test systems, I used SUSE Manager to conduct software installation and update tasks, push down configuration changes and monitor services running on the machines. The product can also handle system provisioning, a feature that I did not test. En route to these results, I spent quite a bit of time wrestling with mirror credentials between Novell's Customer Center and my SUSE Manager installation.

It's tough to tell exactly how much of these difficulties to pin on SUSE Manager and how much to pin on the back-end services. However, there's certainly room for improvement here-if only to ease the process of evaluating the product for a potential move from Red Hat to Novell for support.

Among the other rough edges I encountered were the at-times-confusing references to Red Hat throughout the product, some of which weren't clearly spelled out in the documentation. For instance, in the documentation for setting up configuration file management, there's a spot that refers to mgrcfg-client, an application that I found on my SLES 11 test machine, but on my RHEL 6 machine, the application was called rhncfg-client.

For SLES customers, SUSE Manager is well worth evaluating. Although SLES and RHEL are different products, they have, as Linux-based operating systems, quite a bit in common, and it makes sense for Novell to throw in its lot with Red Hat to address those issues. It's not clear to me just how enticing a move from Red Hat to Novell for RHEL support would be, but having the option can't hurt.

Pricing for SUSE Manager starts at $13,500 for the core server, and $2,500 for proxy server nodes. Individual SUSE Manager modules start at $96 per managed server. More pricing information is available. These prices map very closely to what Red Hat charges for its Satellite product. SUSE Manager and its components may be freely downloaded and used for a 60-day evaluation.

Testing SUSE Manager 1.2

I installed SUSE Manager on a virtual machine running on VMware vSphere; the product came on an ISO image bundled with a copy of SLES 11. SUSE Manager ships with a built-in Oracle XE database, which I used for my tests.

In a production environment, Novell recommends using a full-sized version of Oracle 10g or 11g. The dependency on Oracle as a database back-end comes from Red Hat, which opted for Oracle in the early days of RHN and hasn't yet severed that requirement. The upstream Spacewalk project has partial support for PostgreSQL as an alternative to Oracle, but this support isn't yet complete.

After installing the server, I configured software-update channels for SLES 11 and for RHEL 6. It took a bit of bouncing back and forth with my contacts at Novell to get the credentials and entitlements straight for these products. First, with the SLES software channel, and later, with the RHEL channel, I was able to subscribe my SUSE Manager server to the channels I needed, but the packages weren't synchronizing correctly. Once we got the subscriptions straight, however, they worked as expected.

I spun up a pair of VMs, one running SLES 11 SP1, and the other running RHEL 6, and registered each system with my SUSE Manager installation, which involved configuring and running a bootstrap script on each system. Both of my test machines retained their standard software installation tools-for RHEL, yum, and for SLES, zypper. Both tools fetched their packages from SUSE Manager.

For my RHEL system, I had to supplement the packages available through SUSE Manager with a repository that I had to build from the RHEL 6 install media. I believe that I could have integrated this repository with the SUSE Manager, but it wasn't clear from the documentation how to do this, so I left it separate. Neither SUSE Manager nor my test RHEL client complained about using packages from separate sources.

I updated my SLES and RHEL systems with the latest packages available, and installed some new software on both systems through the SUSE Manager Web interface. I was also able to run arbitrary remote commands on these systems through the same Web console.

I created a configuration channel on SUSE Manager, and added a text file to the channel. After subscribing both of my test systems to the channel, I was able to push it down to the managed machines. My test file was very simple, but I could have tapped the product's macro functionality to further customize it.

I also dipped into SUSE Manager's system-monitoring capabilities, but with mixed success. I added a simple SNMP-based uptime probe to my systems, along with a directive to report to me via email. This probe worked as expected, but I couldn't manage to get a second Apache uptime-specific probe to work. Instead, I received, from both my SLES and RHEL machines (each of which, I confirmed, were in fact running working instances of Apache) a string of error emails with the unhelpful message: "Internal problem executing check. Please contact Red Hat."

I'm looking forward to spending more time with SUSE Manager's upstream open-source project, Spacewalk. In particular, I plan to test the project's support for Debian-based distributions and for PostgreSQL as a database back end.