Zee Germans and Zee Penguins: SuSE 8.0 beta 3 Review

by Jose Nazario

I came to know SuSE some years ago as a Red Hat-like distribution that featured tighter component integration, internationalization and a modest emphasis on security (before it was vogue). Since then, it's been one I typically recommend to people, and I generally find they're pleased with it.

SuSE 8.0's default installation includes:

  • a SuSE firewall interface and "personal firewall"

  • KDE, with SuSE additions

  • lots of documentation, from both the LDP and SuSE

  • StarOffice 5.2 and other desktop tools

  • ReiserFS as the default filesystem

For all of these reasons, SuSE 8.0 represents an excellent choice for a typical Linux user, and especially for a new user.

The Installation Process

I installed SuSE on two machines: a desktop machine I keep around for development and one of my laptops, which has taken over as a main machine of mine. The installation of this beta was preceded by warnings about beta software and lack of support, but of course, they're asking for feedback--fair enough. And off we were, with German bits here and there to confuse me.

The base installation includes a lot of software. This may not be what you want if you're a power user and like to keep it lean, but it's very handy for new users. One typical drawback is the confusion over all of the choices. Perhaps companies should start looking to install the "best of breed" software by default and leave the rest of it on the CDs. You can, of course, go with a customized installation.

I installed the system several times, testing the various options. None of the problems were the kinds of things you wouldn't find in another distribution installation and can be worked around, often through a manual installation.

The installation process is quite a marvel. SuSE seems to have really learned a lot from the process over the years, and they have implemented it very well. New users will find it quite easy to do, and power users will have many options open to them for adjusting their settings.

If the system autodetects a Windows partition, it will shrink it to a reasonable size and install Linux after that. The choice of ReiserFS is also very sensible. It's a stable filesystem and can boot quickly, all things that would matter to anyone, new users especially.

The installation process is well hidden from users. A system of autodetection finds hardware and makes choices about installation that would suit a typical user. Making changes is also quite easy.

The Installed System

Once installed, the system is nicely laid out. The integration of KDE and SuSE elements is user friendly, configuration through the various Yast2 utilities is intuitive and documentation is well placed and handy.

SuSE 8.0b3 is based on the Linux 2.4.18 kernel, KDE3 and XFree86 4. While KDE3 is still prerelease in this edition, it was rather stable and easy to use. This was my first foray into some of the newer features that SuSE is using, and I found I was able to get around quickly and catch up to speed with ease.

The base system is pretty large, over 1GB. This isn't a big deal in terms of what a typical system disk can do these days, but should be noted if you're hoping for a svelte installation. You'll find a lot to do as you explore that 1GB.

I was pretty overwhelmed, frankly, by all of the installed options on my desktop. While some things were easy to navigate, some were not--just too many options to sift through. It may be worthwhile to trim down your account's desktop settings to cover only things you will actually use. It's also advisable to trim out administration stuff from regular users, which can help keep down the clutter.

KDE is an easy to use and intuitive desktop environment. The main applications, namely web, office and games, were all well represented.

Star Office 5.2 is included in the default installation, so it's easy to handle other document formats sent to you, edit them and send them back. Simply click the desktop icon, set up Star Office, and you're ready to go.

The default browser is Konquerer, not the familiar Netscape. Having gone through a lot of development and testing, it's become very robust and easy to use. In fact, plenty of people who don't use KDE use Konquerer! Mail is also handled through a KDE application, KMail, which should be pretty intuitive for most e-mail users.

Desktop and system customization were also simple--not only the typical KDE customization, but SuSE has a good number of GUI tools to help configure the system.

New users should find the SuSE desktop to be what they're looking for. Applications, navigation and customization are all simple. The interface borrows heavily from Windows and other GUIs, including Apple's OS X, bringing together an altogether intuitive desktop.

Also, one of SuSE's biggest strengths is its internationalization. SuSE supports many languages, including German, English (both UK and US versions) Spanish and many more. Similarly, it supports the Intel x86, IBM PPC, Compaq Alpha and Sun Sparc processors--truly multiflavored!

Administration

The same powerful combination of SuSE and KDE that works for the user also works for the administrator. Furthermore, SuSE has developed a large set of administration tools over the years. These tools are mature and well integrated with the system.

User administration tools are readily available, making management of your herd an easy task. Password strength and aging, for example, can be selected from a simple menu-driven interface. This helps take the heat off of having to know esoteric command-line switches.

Network configuration is also handily done. Driver installation is much easier than it has been, and setting up any number of tasks associated with internet connectivity is also swiftly handled.

File sharing is also simple to set up and administer. NFS and SAMBA interfaces are integrated, making the possibly complex setup a snap. This makes it easy to get a Linux machine integrated with your existing file servers and complement the network.

Other, more basic system configurations are also really well done with the Yast2 tools. Kernel configurations are handled with a nice management tool that is well integrated into the overall system, making it easy to manage multiple configurations. XFree86 configuration is done by the advanced SuSE X configuration tool, should you need to make changes to your setup.

Firewall installation by SuSE is very nice. With the prevalence of worms on the network, it's important for hosts to remain protected. This is especially important on campus networks and broadband links. SuSE brings years of practice into making security easy to apply.

SuSE as a Server

This testing focused on SuSE as a desktop machine, using the GUI elements that you would use in a typical desktop workstation rather than as a server. However, SuSE does have a range of products for servers, including a database and a group server with Domino products.

Bugs and Such

I found several bugs in the installation process. I had to kick-start the Windows partition resizing, which just got stuck a couple of times. I also found that the system didn't like to install in the first partition of the root disk unless I really coaxed it. This led to a difficult-to-boot system, which required some manual fixing.

One important thing that should be included is better support for wireless Ethernet. My laptop is mainly connected through wireless to the rest of my local network (and then out to the Internet). This is increasingly popular and should be a simple option.

Comparisons to Other Distributions

It's only fair to compare SuSE to other distributions, both to help people identify strengths and weaknesses and also to size up what may be right for them. I have been a long-time user of Red Hat, and I know where the bugs are and how to fix them in each release. However, I find that SuSE is a slightly better-integrated release, relying less on being the latest suite and more on being a total package.

I first noticed SuSE because of its ease of securing an installation, long before other vendors started focusing on security. This extra effort of adding value to a distribution is even greater now in version 8.0. This compares pretty favorably with Debian but is a bit more even-handed in the middle-of-the-road style of Linux.

Some of the other distributions seem to be moving away from LILO as a boot manager, and probably with good reason. It's still ornery, and the SuSE install had a few bugs with it. It's probably worth it to move away from LILO at this point.

Conclusions

SuSE 8.0 is a great Linux distribution. It's easy to install, which has been a typical problem, has very sane defaults and provides a rich environment for those moving to Linux or upgrading to this version. While only a beta was evaluated here, it shows strong promise for really propelling Linux onto the desktop.

Jose Nazario is a biochemistry graduate student nearing the completion of his PhD. Side projects include Linux and other UNIX variants, software and security-related matters, and hobbies outside his office, like fly fishing and photography.

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