OpenSUSE 11: A Feature-Rich Distro in Search of Direction

Monday Jun 23rd 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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These days, major distributions are known for a particular focus. But the new Open SUSE release is still trying to be everything to everybody.

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Bruce Byfield's OpenSUSE 11 review

The different incarnations of SuSE have always kept the feel of old time distributions -- by which I mean releases made before GNU/Linux became popular, and new users became the main priority in planning. Nor is version 11.0 of openSUSE an exception. Even from a Live CD, openSUSE installs with several choices of basic software, including, for instance, both Firefox and Konqueror in the KDE version. More importantly, unlike distributions such as Fedora or Ubuntu, openSUSE does not concentrate on ease of use so much as on adding increased functionality.

The result is a release that, while not completely ideal for an absolute newcomer, offers more advanced desktop users who have absorbed the GNU/Linux mania for tinkering. In fact, from installation through software selection to package installation and security, the first thing you are likely to observe is the number of choices unavailable on other distributions.

openSUSE 11.0 is available as a DVD, or as a Live CD with either a GNOME or a KDE desktop and a second CD for extra languages. The download page leads you carefully through choosing the appropriate download, starting with a selection of computer type, and offering a choice of media and download type, as well as a link to online installation help. In the sidebar of the download page, you can even choose to buy a boxed version with a manual and 90 days of installation support -- an old-fashioned option that is probably more a courtesy to reassure those used to proprietary software rather than a true source of profit.

For most people, one of the Live CDs is probably the best choice, since it is quickest to download. The only drawback is that, if you are one of those who choose applications by functionality rather than the desktop they are designed for, one of your first post-install tasks will be to install the other major desktop.

Installation

The openSUSE installer on the Live CD is divided into four stages. In the first, you choose the language and the keyboard, and accept the license. By accepting the license, you agree not to distribute copies for profit or bundled with anything else, and also not to reverse engineer or transfer rights. The rationale is probably that the license refers to the distribution as a whole, but, all the same, it seems at odds with the free licenses of the individual applications -- especially any version of the GNU General Public License -- so you might want to consult a lawyer before using openSUSE commercially.

If you do decide to continue, the next step is partitioning. By default, openSUSE allocates a swap file twice the size of your system RAM, with 40 percent of the remaining hard drive space given to the /directory and 60 percent to /home, where personal files are stored. If you want to change these defaults, you can choose between creating partitions or a logical volume manager, as well as whether you want encryption, RAID or NFS. The setting up of individual partitions is eased by an in-window help pane, but, to understand other options, you will have to drill down through the online help.

After you set the time zone and create a new member, you can exercise any second thoughts at the installation summary, then the installation begins. Halfway through, you have to reboot and remove the Live CD. Then automatic system configuration continues, segueing into a user login without any warning. At least twice through this process, xserver resolutions are tested, so be prepared for strange displays lasting maybe ten seconds.

In general, the installer is not difficult to use if you have installed GNU/Linux before, especially if you stick to the defaults. However, while not offering as many options as the Debian installer, it does not do nearly as good a job of explaining possible choices. If you are planning any advanced installation, have another computer online beside you so you can consult the help. Even then, you may not find a succinct summary of the pros and cons of each choice, only a description of them.

Desktop and Software Selection

openSUSE starts with a boot manager whose labels give no indication of the kernel being booted, and with a display of messages that seems verbose compared to other distributions. Once you are at the desktop, you will find an extremely up-to-date selection of software, including OpenOffice.org 2.4, Firefox 3.0, and a 2.6.25 kernel. The default desktop, an abstract design of green swirls, is simple yet aesthetically pleasing, although those familiar with other distributions may miss having a panel on the top as well as the bottom of the screen.

Before being purchased by Novell in 2003, SuSE was a KDE oriented distribution, and openSUSE was always among the first to package the new beta releases when KDE 4 was under development last fall. Considering these circumstances, it is not surprising that openSUSE 11.0 pays more attention to configuring the KDE 4 desktop than many distributions. Those who have used KDE 4 before will notice that openSUSE's version runs fast and bug-free, with many small touches such as making the small collar of icons around each desktop launcher visible only when the mouse is over it, and removing the option to revert to the classic menu.

In GNOME, the menu is modified to something resembling KDE's, with links to a Control Center window full of configuration tools and an Applications Browser rather than a traditional menu with collapsing sub-menus.

In both desktops, the main administration tool is the latest incarnation of SuSE's venerable YaST. Once you are used to YaST, you can appreciate its thoroughness, but, if you have never tried it, at first it can be disconcerting. For one thing, clicking a category of hardware, you may find yourself suddenly prompted to install the software necessary to support it. Even more disorienting are the number of choices in some sections of YaST, some of which are not particularly well-named, and all of which you must navigate without any in-window help.

For instance, when you select Software from the left hand menu pane, you are faced with eight possible choices. If you are a newcomer, you may wonder what the difference is between Online Update and Automatic Online Update. Nor are you likely to know, except through trial and error, that the basic choice you want is the vaguely-named Software Management. Similarly, only familiarity can let you know that you should look for system logs in the Miscellaneous menu, or that Network Settings are in Network Devices rather Network Services.

Once you know your way around, you can start to appreciate the wealth of options in YaST; the virtualization tools in particular are among the best I've seen in a desktop distribution. However, YaST does make few concessions to a new user. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since ignorant hands can do untold damage with desktop administrations tools, but it is a different perspective from that of Ubuntu and other distributions that have been receiving all the attention in recent years.

Software Installation

Like other recent releases of openSUSE, version 11.0 uses ZYpp to manage software installation. In version 11.0, ZYpp is noticeably faster than in previous releases, but still slower than apt-get, the equivalent tool in Debian-derived distributions like Ubuntu.

The first time you use it, ZYpp also requires some patience. Before you can use it, you have to select Software -> Software Repositories in YaST, and enable all the repositories. Then, when you select Software -> Software Management for the first time, you have to endure a long wait while the repository databases on your system are refreshed. Mercifully, though, a repository refresh takes much less time after the first one, and can be disabled altogether if you choose.

Moreover, once you are ready to install, you will find the ZYpp window an outstanding graphical package interface. The left pane contains drop-boxes and check boxes for about a dozen common searches, while the bottom right pane offers a basic description for casual users, as well as file information, dependencies, version numbers, included files and a change log. Mostly, I'm not a fan of graphical package installers, but ZYpp is the first one that makes me reconsider my position.

Security

openSUSE starts with its firewall enabled by default. Unfortunately, AppArmor, which allows administrators to set up profiles for how individual programs can be used, is not. In the absence of detailed help, this choice makes AppArmor unusable for most uses without considerable research. This situation is especially ironic, since AppArmor is often defended as an easier to understand alternative to Fedora's SELinux, yet, because it is enabled by default and supported by increasingly polished desktop tools, SELinux is actually far easier to use in Fedora than AppArmor is in openSUSE.

However, openSUSE is also supported by a Local Security application under Security and Users in YaST. This tool is the closest I have seen to a user-friendly version of Bastille, the well-known system hardening tool. Local Security covers such issues as permitted password length and complexity, permissions at boot time, the number of login attempts permitted, and the default file permissions. Its major lack is a discussion of the possible choices that would allow unsophisticated users to make best use of it.

Detracting from these tools is the option in the installation program to use the password you create for the root user. If you select this option, not only are you automatically logged in, but the default settings for sudo, which is designed to give users temporary root privileges, are set so that all users on the system have them. Perhaps these are rare examples of openSUSE's developers thinking of new users and trying to create a default that will be familiar to them from Windows, but, if so, the decision to include such options and defaults is a classic example of choosing convenience over security. Taken together, they seriously undermine the entire concept of root users and sudo.

Possible audiences

Some members of the free software community will reject openSUSE out of hand, remembering the Microsoft-Novell pact in November 2006, and damning openSUSE along with its patron Novell. That is understandable if not entirely fair.

However, thinking only on the technical side, a better reason to have reservations about openSUSE is its lack of focus. These days, major distributions are known for a particular focus -- for example, Ubuntu for user-friendliness, Fedora for the latest innovations, and Debian for stability and software freedom. By contrast, like the distributions of a decade ago, is still trying to be everything to everybody.

There may be a niche for all-purpose distributions, but the lack of one or two priorities makes openSUSE hard to recommend unreservedly. Like a Swiss army knife, it is a reliable all-round tool, and often has some welcome features in the most unexpected places, but it is hard to say that it excels at anything.

In particular, it is not a strong choice for a distribution for introducing anyone to GNU/Linux. While openSUSE may change as its development community becomes more organized, right now, it seems at best only intermittently aware of the need to assist new users.

Instead, I would recommend openSUSE to two types of uses. The first would be an old hand whom an all-round distribution makes nostalgic. The second would be one who has tried several distributions already, and, who, with some knowledge of GNU/Linux configuration and administration, is shopping around for a distribution to call their own.

Such users, if they took the time to know the distribution, just might find openSUSE compatible with their mindset and level of expertise. But other users, I'm afraid, have few technical reasons either to gravitate towards openSUSE or to reject it altogether.

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