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SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 review

By Jem Matzan

I've tested and/or reviewed every version of this operating system (now on its third name) since the first version, and each time I start out impressed but end up walking away disappointed. SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 is not an exception to this tradition. While it may be a decent desktop operating system, I can't possibly recommend that sysadmins rely on SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 in a production environment.

SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop overview

Originally, SuSE Linux produced a corporate desktop distribution called SuSE Desktop. It used the old UnitedLinux kernel, but was otherwise much like the SuSE consumer desktop products of the same era. It was the first commercial corporate desktop GNU/Linux distribution, and had a large but quiet impact on the GNU/Linux distribution market. Sun Microsystems adopted SuSE Desktop for its first and second editions of the much-hyped Java Desktop System. Later, Sun decided that Java Desktop System would no longer refer to a specific operating system; instead it would be the name of the customized GNOME desktop theme that Sun uses for both Solaris and for future GNU/Linux-based operating systems that it releases.

When Novell bought SuSE, it changed SuSE Desktop's name to Novell Linux Desktop. With this release, Novell again changed its name, this time to SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. Though KDE was the traditional interface for all SUSE products, GNOME is now the standard desktop environment.

You can expect SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) 10 to include a majority of the packages necessary to run a desktop computer in a large business -- and not one single program more. The default installation differs little from the maximum installation, and the extra packages are really only for special-case situations.

What's new in version 10

First, the obvious: all of the standard packages have been updated. The kernel is at version 2.6.16.21, OpenOffice.org is at version 2.0.2, Firefox at 1.5.0.4, and GNOME is at version 2.12.2. Were you expecting KDE instead? With SLED 10, Novell has changed the default desktop environment from KDE to GNOME, thought KDE is still available if you wish to install it.

SLED 10's GNOME implementation has been modified from its highly usable default interface to to one that very much resembles Windows XP and Windows Vista in terms of functionality and menu placement. Taken as a whole, however, SLED 10's interface is unique enough that even seasoned GNU/Linux, OS X, and Windows veterans will have some initial trouble figuring out where things are and what everything does. After I became accustomed to GNOME ala SLED 10, I concluded that the interface design is only useful to people who need a maximum of eight programs (the number of programs that will fit in the "favorite programs" group that dominates your Computer menu). If I were to use this operating system long-term, I think I would have to modify the interface so that I can avoid the click- and scroll-heavy main menu. It is a big production to get to a program that isn't shown in the main Computer menu screen. If, after clicking on the Computer menu button, you need to use something that isn't considered a "favorite" application, you have to click another button, then scroll through a double list of installed programs in a separate window. SLED 10's GNOME implementation won't win any beauty contests, either -- it's plain and uninspired to the point that the bland theme actually further detracts from its usability by unintentionally disguising the Computer menu button. If you weren't familiar with the purpose and placement of the Windows Start menu or KDE K menu, you'd find SLED 10 very difficult to navigate.

Another major change in this release is in the software management framework. Novell ZENworks is now the default program for installing, removing, and updating software in SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (and other current SUSE products). If you want, you can still use YaST and YaST Online Update (YOU) for these tasks, but it has officially been deprecated in favor of ZENworks. Unlike the consumer-grade SUSE Linux 10.1, SLED 10's ZENworks implementation actually works as intended, though it still requires a small amount of configuration to allow normal users to access it. You also need to register your email address with Novell in order to activate ZENworks, but this is a quick and painless process that literally takes a few seconds. This registration process also enables proprietary software repositories in ZENworks, so you can download and install the Nvidia and ATI video card drivers, among other things.

Though they only very recently began to see usage in desktop operating systems (well, SUSE Linux 10.1 and DIY distros like Gentoo and Debian are the only ones so far), the XGL special effects engine and the Compiz window manager are included in SLED 10 and activated by default, assuming you register with Novell to get the required proprietary video drivers. Given the wide range of problems with these early XGL and Compiz releases, I'm surprised to see them included as standard packages in an "enterprise" operating system. Even if these packages were optional, I can't imagine any sane company rushing to provide support for them. I predict XGL will be a major source of trouble for Novell's support department over the next few months.

JFS support has been dropped from YaST, so if you had any JFS volumes, you'll be unable to manage them through the GUI. The JFS kernel module is still in place, however, so you can still read existing JFS partitions.

The default install includes an outstanding computer-based audio/visual training program and interactive help system to assist new users in learning how to operate and configure SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. The program is broken up into tasks, so you can skip directly to the section that applies to your situation. It's by far the best desktop GNU/Linux CBT that I have ever seen.

Lastly, the NetworkManager applet introduced in SUSE Linux 10.1 has been incorporated into SLED 10. It allows you to easily manage and connect to wired and wireless networks. I've got no complaints about NetworkManager at all -- I think it's an outstanding tool that every desktop operating system should have, and I'm glad to see it in SLED 10.

SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10
SLED 10: bland and buggy

Putting it to the test

Installing SLED 10 is easy and intuitive -- just like SUSE Linux 10 and 10.1 -- and not too much different than it's been over the past several releases. The default disk partitioning scheme is excellent; it assigns enough space to the root and swap partitions to run the system, then gives the rest to /home, where the bulk of your data will ultimately reside.

SLED 10's install routine intelligently detects laptop systems and installs the laptop package group by default. This group consists of wireless network drivers (Centrino, Atmel, Atheros), PCMCIA slot drivers, infrared drivers, and sleep/suspend software. Although this group is not selected by default on desktop systems, the Madwifi (Atheros) wireless drivers are still installed if you have a wireless PCI card that needs them.

SLED 10 can authenticate users against the local system (/etc/passwd), OpenLDAP, NIS, a Windows domain, and eDirectory LDAP, a selection I found to be rather eclectic.

I was pleased to learn that the default SLED 10 install included Firefox plugins for Java, Flash, Adobe Acrobat (PDF), RealPlayer, and Citrix. That means that there is little or no post-install configuration or hacking to be done to make the Web browser meet the expectations of the average business desktop computer user. The only thing that is missing is the ability to play video files through Firefox. The absence of such a plugin could prevent important work-related activities like attending online meetings, viewing product demos, and participating in computer-based training programs. As is now customary, I have written a guide to show you how to add missing pieces like these.

While there was a Java Runtime Environment installed, it was the older 1.4.2 version. Since there are significant, oft-used features in Java 5.0 (1.5.0) that are not backwards-compatible with older JREs, I'm puzzled as to why Novell did not go with the newer version. To add insult to injury, there are absolutely no integrated development environments included with or officially available for SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. No NetBeans, Eclipse, Bluefish, Screem, Quanta, or KDevelop - nothing. What are programmers supposed to do if their company installs SLED 10 on its desktop computers -- switch to Vim?

My first impression of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 was quite negative. On my first test machine -- a desktop computer with an Asus A8N-E motherboard, 1GB RAM, an ATI Radeon X700 video card, and a 17" LCD monitor -- the default font settings were so tiny that I couldn't read any text. The login screen was fine, as was the virtual terminal, but everything in the GNOME desktop had its font set to what must have been the smallest size. I tried to mess with SaX2 for a while, and other YaST modules, but couldn't fix the problem.

Moving on to my Acer TravelMate 2300 laptop system, the first thing that happened after installation was a hard lockup. It turns out that SLED 10 doesn't get along with the Linksys WPC11 version 4 wireless network card, and the system crashes when it tries to connect to an access point. Further confounding my wireless networking options, I discovered that NDISwrapper is not installed by default; it is available in the standard SLED 10 package repository, though.

Lastly, the Synaptics touchpad on the TravelMate had the infamous scroll problem. This is fixed by installing a Synaptics control program like KSynaptics, which is not officially available for SLED 10. So you're stuck with an unfortunately remapped touchpad that wants to scroll the screen when you get near the bottom or right side of the pad. In Firefox, this makes the browser go back and forward in the page history.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

As a veteran of dozens of operating system reviews and hundreds of articles on computer technology, I have found that if you don't stop and recalibrate your frame of reference from time to time, you can start to accept the fact that most operating systems these days ship with obvious and easy-to-find problems. Not just software bugs, but configuration issues and usability blunders. In a free-of-charge BSD variant or GNU/Linux distribution, some of these sins are forgivable. But when you tell me that you have a product designed to work in a big business -- a real production environment where you lose thousands of dollars for every minute of downtime or lost productivity -- then you're throwing down the gauntlet and saying that this operating system is not just pretty good, it's damned good. Well, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 is not good enough. This is definitely not what I would call an "enterprise" operating system; you would have to be crazy to deploy SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 on corporate desktop and laptop systems, considering your alternatives. Red Hat Desktop, though only available in volume orders with the higher classes of Red Hat server products and being comprised of somewhat older software, is a perfect example of an "enterprise" desktop OS. You can put OpenBSD and CentOS in the "enterprise" category as well. They don't crash, they accept a wide range of hardware, and have a better and more varied selection of business desktop software available for them. They're everything that SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 is not. Xandros and Mandriva also make outstanding, far more thoroughly tested business desktop operating systems that -- having reviewed two versions of each -- I consider to be superior to SLED 10. It seems to me that SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 is not so much Novell's attempt to push into the business market as it is an attempt to provide a for-profit version of SUSE Linux for home desktop users.

SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 is, in effect, what the buggy SUSE Linux 10.1 should have been. Or at least, that's the most positive way I can think of to say that both operating systems were insufficiently tested for their intended markets. I hope Sun Microsystems takes this first draft of an operating system, fixes the problems I listed in this review, and comes out with a killer Java Desktop System 3.

The following issues must be addressed before I will consider SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (assuming Novell doesn't change the name again before the next release) truly enterprise-ready:

  • Improved release engineering. Did Novell fire its QA department or something? I found showstopping bugs in this product within five minutes of post-install use. That is totally unacceptable for a supposedly production-ready operating system. Don't give customers your beta builds and promise to try to fix them later.
  • Synaptics touchpad configuration. Really this is a suggestion for the GNOME people, but nothing is stopping Novell from designing its own Synaptics touchpad configuration utility (or just including KSynaptics). At very least, X.org could be configured to disable touchpad scrolling by default. If you think I'm being petty about this seemingly minor issue, I challenge you to use SLED 10 for your daily computing work for three days with a Synaptics touchpad and we'll see how long it takes before you crack.
  • Developers, developers, developers. SLED 10 doesn't have any IDEs. What operating system is the Web development team supposed to use? What about the programmers -- what OS do they use? Unless you want to hack SLED 10 to use SUSE Linux 10.1 packages, or download and install RPMs manually from the Internet, these people are left out in the cold. How many businesses do you know of that don't employ either a Web developer (or designer) or a programmer? The people at Novell who decide what packages go into the Enterprise Desktop product need to create a "Development" package group that includes popular integrated development environments and other development packages. Note: A Novell employee wrote to me about the SUSE Linux Enterprise SDK, which has IDEs and other development tools for SLED 10. I don't know how I would have found out about this extra disc if someone hadn't told me -- at the time of the review, the SDK was not on the media download page for SLED, nor was it mentioned in any place where I'd notice it.
  • Forget XGL. Graphical desktop effects have no place in an "enterprise" operating system. Principles aside, XGL is buggy and causes a variety of stability and usability problems, some of which are even listed in the SLED 10 release notes. If Novell knew that this undeniably superfluous technology caused so many problems, why on earth did the release engineers include it in the base system and enable it by default?
  • Fix the upgrade problems. As much as sysadmins adore an operating system that they only have to apply occasional patches to, eventually everyone must upgrade. The bad news for SUSE customers is, upgrading from one version to the next can be difficult at best and impossible at worst. Smooth upgrading from one major version to another is an issue that every operating system developer struggles with, but again, this is supposed to be an "enterprise" operating system. System administrators expect an operating system that they don't have to mess with.
  • Improve hardware autoconfiguration. SLED 10 was totally clueless when it came to detecting the size, resolution, and aspect ratio of two of my LCD screens. It also had trouble switching from the standard ATI driver to the proprietary one. Again, this is stuff that sysadmins don't want to bother with; the software should be able to do its own configuration.
  • Improve usability. I found SLED 10's interface to be difficult to use. The Computer menu looks more like a minimized application than a menu button. It's also fairly nondescript, and if I wasn't already used to the K menu or Start menu being in the lower left corner, I wouldn't know what that "Computer" icon was. Furthermore, the menu structure is anti-productivity. Perhaps there should be a step during post-install configuration which asks each user what icons they would like in their "Favorite" group, rather than just guess and make them swim through a two-part menu system to get to the software they use most.
  • Purpose Enterprise desktop operating system
    Manufacturer Novell, Inc.
    Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
    License Mostly under the GNU General Public license, but several packages are under restrictive proprietary licenses
    Market Business desktop computers
    Price (retail) U.S. $50 per year per computer
    Previous version Novell Linux Desktop 9
    Product Web site Click here