Novell's OpenSUSE 11.2, the latest release in a long and popular line of Linux-based operating systems, hit Internet mirrors everywhere this week, packed with the latest and greatest of what the open-source software world has to offer.
The distribution, which is targeted primarily at desktop users, ships with the latest versions of the Firefox Web browser and the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, as well as up-to-date versions of the GNOME and KDE desktop environments. On these counts, OpenSUSE bears a strong resemblance to the latest versions of Fedora and Ubuntu Linux.
However, there's plenty that sets OpenSUSE apart from its chief Linux rivals, most of which has to do with the longtime SUSE focus on catering to power users (in the Windows sense of the word). Where Fedora and Ubuntu focus on delivering friendly interfaces for mainstream user functions and shunting everything else to the command line (the home of the Unix power user), OpenSUSE enables users to click their way through a great many administrative tasks-control panel complexity be damned.
On the plus side, this philosophy makes OpenSUSE somewhat more discoverable than its peers. I find it easier to explore the capabilities of an application through menus and tool tips than by squinting at config files. In fact, it was with SUSE-circa Version 7.3-that I got started with Linux (around 2001). On the other hand, the more-is-more approach does lead to confusion in some corners, such as where parallel, installed-by-default software upgrade and installation tools vie for your attention in right-click menus and system control panels.
A great example of the positives and pitfalls inherent in OpenSUSE's power-user orientation lies in the way that OpenSUSE 11.2 exposes and integrates community-packaged software into the distribution. The tools that ship with Version 11.2 do a great job of tapping the ready-to-install applications that individuals and open-source projects can create using Novell's OpenSUSE Build Service. As a result, it's easier than ever for users to locate and install the particular software they want, but it's easy as well to turn reasonably supportable distributions into Frankenstein-like mashups of potentially conflicting packages.
With that said, I think the moves that Novell and the OpenSUSE team have made around embracing community packaging efforts are worthwhile, and serve to maintain OpenSUSE in its place as one of the best desktop Linux distributions available.
As a server operating system, OpenSUSE offers the software and the configuration tools to handle most Linux workloads, particularly those that require up-to-date open-source components such as databases and programming frameworks. However, OpenSUSE 11.2 sports a shrunken window for bug and security fix support of 18 months, down from 24 months for previous versions.
OpenSUSE 11.2 comes in versions for x86 and AMD64 systems, and can be freely downloaded from http://software.OpenSUSE.org/112/en. The download images available from this site include a 4.7GB DVD image that contains the entire distribution, as well as separate Live CD images that include the GNOME and KDE desktop environments. New in 11.2 is the option to write one of these Live CD images to a USB stick, a welcome improvement that can speed installation times.