The purpose of a Linux distribution is to deliver a Linux-based operating environment with a useful set of applications in a single, well-integrated package.
Two of the best such distributors, MandrakeSoft S.A. and Novell Inc.s SuSE Linux division, recently shipped new versions of their respective mainstream Linux distributions, both based on the new Linux 2.6 kernel.
eWEEK Labs tested Mandrakelinux 10 PowerPack+ and SuSE Linux 9.1 Professional—which each began shipping last month—and we were impressed with their ease of use and with the broadness of their capabilities.
Mandrakes and SuSEs Linux distributions fit well into the roles of mainstream desktop and of low-cost small-business server—filling a sizable void left by Linux market share leader Red Hat Inc. Red Hats offerings are divided between the annual-subscription-priced Red Hat Enterprise Linux and the community-supported Fedora Core.
On the desktop, SuSE Linux 9.1 and Mandrakelinux 10 offer a better out-of-the-box experience than Fedora Core, which, due to redistribution-related license issues, lacks several key applications, such as a Java Virtual Machine, a Macromedia Flash plug-in and libraries for playing MP3 music files. Mandrakelinux 10 and SuSE Linux 9.1 also feature much nicer software installation tools than either of Red Hats Linux distributions.
While some corporate users require applications that are available only for Windows, there are generally good Linux alternatives available. Both distributions we tested ship with a large number of these Linux applications—SuSE comes with five CD-ROMs and Mandrake ships with eight.
The latest versions of Mandrake and SuSE are also great candidates for setting up small and midsize departmental servers—server software is one of Linuxs strengths, and both of these distributions provide administrators with a wide range of server applications, along with tools to configure and manage them.
SuSE Linux Professional 9.1 costs $105, or $70 for an upgrade version. SuSE 9.1 also comes in a $35 Personal edition, which we did not test. The Personal edition lacks the printed manuals and some of the server and developer software that ships with the Pro version.
Mandrakelinux 10 comes in $230 PowerPack+, $85 PowerPack and $50 Discovery versions. We tested the PowerPack+ edition, which contains a wide range of server applications, including the Kolab groupware server. This version also includes 90 days of Web-based support and five free telephone support incidents (within 60 days).
Both distributions are priced well below Microsofts Windows Small Business Server 2003, which costs $599 to $1,499 and requires the purchase of client access licenses beyond the five that these prices include.
Mandrakelinux 10 runs on Pentium-or-better x86 machines. An AMD-64 version of Mandrakelinux 10 was in release-candidate stage at press time—the latest official version of Mandrakelinux with AMD-64 support is Version 9.2.
SuSE Linux 9.1 supports both Pentium-or-better and AMD-64 machines in the same package.
The biggest change in the distributions we tested was the inclusion of Version 2.6 of the Linux kernel. Mandrakelinux 10 ships with kernel Version 2.6.3, and SuSE Linux 9.1 ships with 2.6.4.
In our tests running the new kernel on Fedora, Debian, SuSE and Mandrake, weve noticed speed gains with the 2.6 kernel compared with the 2.4 version, but weve also run into some application compatibility issues.
For instance, the Cisco Systems Inc. VPN client that were accustomed to using does not yet support the 2.6 kernel; its important to make sure your key applications support the new kernel before moving to a 2.6-based system.
Mandrakelinux and SuSE Linux use KDE 3.2 as their default desktop environment, so both distributions benefit equally from new KDE features such as the KWallet password manager. As a KDE alternative, both products include GNOME 2.4 as well as lesser-known Windows managers. Both Mandrakes and SuSEs iterations of GNOME are well-implemented but, with the recent release of GNOME 2.6, already outdated.
However, we were able to find GNOME 2.6 packages for Mandrake with a quick Google search, and SuSE users will likely be able to upgrade to GNOME 2.6 using SuSE sister company Ximians Red Carpet tool.
Weve long been fans of SuSEs YAST (Yet Another Setup Tool) system configuration tool, because it does a good job of centralizing management tasks. In SuSE 9.1, YAST includes an improved help system and a new module for configuring ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) settings.
We tried this module on a test laptop, with mixed results. Some of the ACPI options, such as suspend, did not work, and the tool didnt provide us with any indication as to whether our laptop supported this option.
During installation, SuSE offers the option of resizing an existing Windows partition—including NTFS (NT File System) partitions—to make room for SuSE. In one of our installs, we were able to resize an NTFS partition, but we were then unable to boot into Windows. The procedure didnt appear to have damaged the data stored on our Windows partition because we could access the data through SuSE, but we were unable to get booted back into Windows. Use caution with this feature, or leave it alone.
Both YAST and Mandrakelinux Control Center include great tools for updating and managing software packages, another area in which Red Hat currently trails SuSE and Mandrake. With both package management tools, we could browse graphically through the packages wed installed, and when there were updates to fetch, we could read through security or bug-fix bulletins.
One difference wed like to see in future versions of SuSE Linux and Mandrakelinux, however, is the organization of the distributions package update and package add and remove functions into a single interface, as is the case with the Synaptic front end for Debians Advanced Package Tool package manager and with Ximians Red Carpet.
Another feature we found helpful in both YAST and the Mandrakelinux Control Center was the integration between the various server configuration tools and the package managers. When wed launch the tool to configure a service wed not yet installed, the systems prompted us to do so.
We did, however, run into a few bugs with this feature on Mandrake. When we attempted to use the WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) mount point tool, the package we needed to install, davfs, wasnt available either on our installation discs or on the Mandrake update server.
Similarly, while configuring the Kolab groupware server that ships with Mandrake, we were prompted to make a change to our network settings—a nice touch, but the prompt instructed us to make the change using drakconnect, a tool from Mandrakelinux 9.2 thats no longer used in Version 10.
SuSE Linux now ships with a graphical database front end, called Rekall. Rekall is similar to Microsofts Access and can fill the gap left by the exclusion of an Access-like application in OpenOffice.org. Rekall let us create databases in the dBASE format, and Rekall plug-ins are available for MySQL, PostgreSQL, Informix and Oracle databases.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected].
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