In a fairly short time, Novell has transformed itself from a firm that had next to nothing to do with Linux into one of the Penguin’s most visible and aggressive flag-bearers.
For evidence of this metamorphosis, we need look no further than Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, which breaks ground in the client operating system territory that Linux leader Red Hat has so far opted scarcely to tread.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, or SLED, is the most polished Linux client operating system we’ve yet tested, and well-deserving of our Analyst’s Choice designation.
We were particularly impressed with the steps Novell has taken in working over SLED’s GNOME 2.12.2 desktop environment to ensure a comfortable transition for Windows migrants.
Case in point is SLED’s new Start menu, which with its integrated search, Recently Used and Favorite Applications features is both reminiscent of and more functional than the Windows XP Start menu.
However, the one area in which SLED fails completely to eclipse its fellow desktop Linux Analysts Choice honoree, Ubuntu Linux 6.06, is in software package availability.
While we did note that SLED’s package installation tools were tighter than the OpenSUSE 10.1 utilities that we recently panned, the range of applications that SLED placed at hand was too small.
For instance, we were disappointed to find the Mozilla Thunderbird mail client and the Kdissert mind-mapping software missing from our available package set.
Many distributions, including SLED’s freely available sibling distribution, OpenSUSE, do offer these packages.
To bridge the gap, we could configure SLED to use package repositories intended for OpenSUSE 10.1. Since OpenSUSE and SLED are, for now, fairly close cousins, this workaround should work fairly well-albeit outside of Novell’s SLED support services.
However, in addition to this lack of support, companies must understand that as OpenSUSE continues along its quick development pace, software package incompatibilities will quickly pile up.
Novell must marshal the packaging resources in its SLED/OpenSUSE community to ensure broad availability of software packaged specifically for SLED.
Software package availability is a crucial issue, not just for competing with other Linux distributions but for vying with Microsoft Windows, as Windows software availability is its most significant advantage over desktop upstarts such as SLED.
With that said, SLED does ship with a solid slate of applications, and companies that want to take the desktop Linux plunge will find in SLED 10 a polished, complete client operating system complete with support from a ubiquitous and proven IT supplier.
eWEEK Labs recommends that companies interested in surveying the state of the art in desktop Linux download a 60-day evaluation copy of SLED 10.
For those who do, we’d appreciate hearing about your experiences-particularly with fitting SLED into a Windows-centric infrastructure.
Slick and Windows-friendly
SLED 10 ships with a complete slate of desktop applications, including the OpenOffice.org office productivity suite (complete with word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, database and drawing tools), the Mozilla Firefox Web browser, Evolution groupware client, Gaim instant messenger client and GIMP photo manipulation application.
In addition to these standard applications, which ship with nearly every Linux desktop, SLED includes very nice photo and music management applications-F-Spot and Banshee, respectively.
It would be smart for Novell to gather up as many of these basic desktop Linux applications as possible into a Windows-compatible, Novell-supported bundle.
Most of these applications already run on Windows, and, since application switching is going to be the biggest hurdle when moving from Windows to SLED, Novell could help lessen the burden by enabling companies to first acclimate their users to the new application set on Windows.
SLED defaults to a GNOME desktop environment, and its the GNOME environment that appears to have received the lions share of customization work from Novell. We also had the option of installing KDE.
SLED’s GNOME desktop features a very nice applications menu that listed all of the programs installed on our system. It also sports a search window in which we could type the application name or function we desired to quickly narrow down the possibilities.
We have not seen this menu in any other GNOME-based distributions, but SLED rivals would do well to adopt it.
Opening Up New Windows
In another Windows-friendly adjustment, Novell has added a new tab to GNOME’s default system monitor application that lists basic system information-such as memory, processor, OS version and free disk space-much like what you get from right-clicking My Computer and choosing Properties in Windows.
SLED ships with Novell’s Beagle desktop search tool integrated into the programs menu. We’ve been impressed with Beagles functionality in previous reviews, and the memory-hogging and instability we’ve seen in early versions of Beagle did not surface in our SLED tests.
We were happy to see that SLED defaults to using Red Hat’s NetworkManager, an excellent utility for easy switching among different wired and wireless connections, as well as for setting up and initiating VPN connections.
OpenSUSE 10.1 and Ubuntu 6.06 offer this tool as an optional add-on, but we view it as a desktop Linux must-have.
We also were rather impressed with the XGL desktop effects functionality we found in SLED. On our 3D-enabled test workstation, SLED regaled us with some cool (but needless) effects-such as raindrops falling on our desktop-as well as some helpful features, including a slick turning-cube means of switching between virtual desktops and a facility for alt-tabbing through open applications.
Nestled among the almost always helpful Yast configuration toolset, by which SUSE releases have long been distinguished, is a handy tool for joining Windows domains for authentication.
We also could authenticate against Novell’s eDirectory, another LDAP service, or NIS (Network Information Service), but we tested only Windows domain and local authentication.
We did struggle a bit to join our test system to a Windows Server 2003 domain: Our test machine was getting its IP address and DNS information through our Windows Server system, but it wasn’t until we created a host entry for the domain that our join worked.
Once we joined the domain, we were able to browse through its file shares, but only after modifying our SLED machines firewall setting to allow the traffic.
We’d like to see this process made simpler, and perhaps integrated into the Windows domain join tool.
SLED also ships with AppArmor, Novells relatively easy-to-use application security framework that has impressed us in past reviews of the technology.
According to Novell, the minimum hardware requirements for SLED are an Intel III 500MHz processor and 256MB of RAM. Novell recommends 512MB of RAM, which, based on our testing, should work fine, but we recommend 1GB of RAM. SLED should run well on any recent x86 or x86-64 processors.
We tested SLED on a white-box workstation outfitted with an Advanced Micro Devices Opteron 246 processor, 2GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce 6600 LE graphics card-the same system on which we recently tested Build 5472 of Windows Vista.
We hit a snag during installation when our test system’s Broadcom NetExtreme BCM5751 network adapter couldnt access the Internet.
As a result, we couldn’t download NVIDIA’s proprietary driver during the install process. This turned out to be a problem, as the open-source NVIDIA driver that ships with the Linux kernel choked on our graphics card, leaving us with an unusable graphical interface.
We popped the Ubuntu 6.06 LiveCD into our test system, and the built-in NVIDIA driver reacted in the same way.
We had to swap in a new network adapter, switch to a fail-safe Vesa driver and download the proprietary NVIDIA driver to get our graphics card firing on all cylinders.
We also tested SLED on a Lenovo Thinkpad T60 with 1GB of RAM. SLED installed on this notebook system smoothly, and we were able to suspend our test notebook to disk (a.k.a. hibernate) without a hitch.
A one-year subscription to SLED 10 starts at $50 per system; a three-year subscription costs $125 per system. This is the same pricing as last years Novell Linux Desktop.
In comparison, Windows XP Professional retails for $300, although its available for less with volume licensing or bundled with a new PC. Other excellent desktop options, such as Ubuntu 6.06, are freely available.
SLEDs subscription price includes 30 days of telephone and electronic support following the products activation.
Further support options are detailed here.
Novell also offers up a fairly complete slate of SLED documentation, including separate guides for GNOME and KDE desktop environments, as well as deployment, connectivity, AppArmor, Evolution 2.6, VPN client and Novell iPrint client guides.
Novell also maintains a handful of user forums oriented toward SLED, but we found these forums relatively sparsely-trafficked.
Red Hats Fedora Core 5, OpenSUSE 10.1 and Ubuntu 6.06 LTS
These freely available Linux distributions offer up-to-date packages and fairly smooth package updating schemes (fedora.redhat.com, en.opensuse.org, www.ubuntu.com)
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]