SuSE Linux Professional 8.2 Review
After being blown away by how well SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8 handled the Ultimate Linux Box, I decided I would see how well SuSE handled on a more pedestrian machine. In the carton along with SLES 8 was a copy of SuSE Linux Professional 8.2. Unlike the fancy ring-binder SLES 8 came in, this was the traditional cardboard box, containing a fairly standard set of books and CDs. I kept unfolding the jewel case and counted one, two, three, four, five CDs, plus two DVDs tucked into a multi-flipout little thing that looks like it should hold only two CDs. Seven disks in all, plus a new logo sticker that looks like a green radiation symbol but is too big for the usual 25mm divot on a lot of PC cases. Ah, well, if that's the only problem we have today, we're doing real well.
The manuals are substantial; the user guide is almost 400 pages. In addition to the usual installation and configuration walk-through, it contains tutorials and references for everything from Evolution and Galeon to burning CDs. There's even a section on ergonomics. The administrator's manual is nearly 600 pages, and where the user guide covers the bright shiny side of Linux, this discusses its grungy underbelly. It covers such topics as file synchronization, security in the network, SAMBA, LVM and software RAID--the printer section alone is 80 pages long. It even tells you what the strange-looking logo is--"a quintic surface with four higher-order double points" (page 3)--and gives you not only the equations for drawing it but a URL for software that handles the equations and renders it for you. Our German friends are nothing if not thorough.
And that's only the manual. Being one to boot first and read the manual later, I put CD 1 in the drive, fiddled with my BIOS and away we went. My system, for reference, is a K6-2/450 with 128MB of RAM atop a DFI Aladdin-IV-chipset motherboard, with a 4.3GB Seagate system drive, a 3GB Quantum Fireball home drive, an S3 Trio 64 video card and an AMD PCnet32 LANCE NIC. SuSE took to it like a duck to water. The boot splash lets you boot the installer normally (sans ACPI), manually or safely. It also gives you choices for booting from the hard drive (nice, if you hosed your MBR), booting a rescue suite or running MEMTEST. It's good to have the installer and diagnostics on the same CD. Cranking the installer, I was presented with a choice in short order: it had found my old system, and asked if I wanted to update or abort. No, go ahead and install, please.
The installer is menu-driven, not dialog-driven. You're presented with a scrolling screen of stuff you can click on to change. If you're happy with the defaults, you don't even have to see them. I tinkered with the software settings, as I didn't want everything for my small system. By default it had already unselected GNOME and reduced KDE to a basic system. I had a few conflicts--I wanted to take out some things it needed for other things I wanted. I discovered both GTK 1.4 and GTK 2 were present, as well as KDE 3, which is a good thing for some of the jobs I eventually want to do with this machine. The conflict resolver can be a little confusing at first, but it tells you everything that's wrong. If you learn to focus on the conflict resolution part of each section, it gets real easy real fast. When I got done I had 1.4GB of stuff to load from CD.
So away we went into grey-bar land. I really like the way SuSE set up this part. You get the usual this package and total progress bars, but you also see separate little ones for each CD's worth of data, in both percent and minutes, so you know if you've got time to go get a cup of joe before having to change CDs. My slowpoke CD drive took about 40 minutes to pull data from two of the five CDs. There also aren't any ads, just a scrolling log of which packages have been loaded.
Once everything is loaded, it asked for a root password. I had to press the Expert options button to make it do this in MD5 format. (Why installations don't do this by default is beyond me; you always could give the option to go back to DES if necessary. A minor quibble, however, it's easily fixed.)
Next was network configuration; I provided a static address and filled in the usual numbers. Nothing fancy; it just works. Ditto the New User page. At this point it asked to test the network by downloading the latest release notes and update notifications. Sure, why not? The modem lights on the firewall went blink, blink, blink, and everything was fine. Did I care to go ahead and update right there? No, thanks, I'll do that later.
The release notes revealed, among other things, that the IMAP dæmon no longer accepts plain-text passwords on unencrypted sessions. This is a good thing, and I wish more people would do it. With these notes read and accepted, the graphics configuration screen appeared. I set up my monitor appropriately; everything else was auto-detected correctly and didn't need help. The test went fine.
After clicking Finish, it reboot..., wait, no, that's runlevel 5 we're kicking into. I'm not sure what kind of trickery they used--it went by entirely too fast--but the installer simply exited into a running system. KDM cranked right up, and when I logged in as the user I had created, I was presented with KDE.
SuSE did a good job customizing KDE. The desktop has a Gecko eye icon that brings up the launcher you see the first time you log in; it links to support, updates and the like. A matching icon is in the Start position for the usual KDE menus, and a second green icon with a lightning bolt pulls up a menu of standard desktop functions (word processor, e-mail, music and so forth). A third icon, the classic document icon, handles text, pictures, presentations and the file manager. Over on the right, next to the clock, is the YOU (YaST Online Update) icon. A click on it brings up the YOU configuration panel, allowing you to configure automatic checking and updating or to launch YOU itself manually. I chose manual launch, and YOU came up with a pre-configured mirror ready to pull down updates. I advise against tinkering with that setting; I did and ended up aborting the index download. Returning to the default setting gave me an index in short order that allowed me to pick which patches I wanted willy-nilly and then showed me whether they were Security, Recommended or Optional. I unchecked a number of things in deference to my firewall's 56k modem and let fly. Like the installer, YOU's grey-bar screen has a nice scrolling log of what's going on.
YaST 2, SuSE's second-generation setup tool, is a total dream. (Keep in mind this is a Debian fan talking here.) The software installer looks very much like the install screen and shows you which CDs you need to use and for how long; I imagine it's much of the same code. The system tool lets you do everything from edit /etc/sysconfig files to back up the system. The firewall tool, under Security, allows for some fairly advanced configuration, including DMZ and IP masquerade, right there under the GUI. I could go on about this, but it's getting long already. Oh, and if you're shelling in on a slow modem from Timbuktu, you should know that YaST 2 works in text mode, too.
No, it's not going to run like a scalded cat, as SLES 8 did on the Ultimate Linux Box. But, a whole heck of a lot of 400MHz-class boxes are floating around out there for real cheap, and I've seen a lot of them being used as Linux desktops and servers. YaST 2 looks a lot like a Windows Control Panel, too, so if you're looking to transition a friend to Linux, SuSE and such a machine are just the ticket. If you want something hotter on the cheap, I hear tell a certain Very Large Retailer is selling machines with SuSE preloaded on its Web site.
SuSE Professional, the version I used, includes Sun's Java 1.4, Apache 2 and a few other goodies, plus 90-day support. This package costs you about $70 at your local big-box store. The Personal Edition has less stuff, obviously, and runs about $40 on the street. Those of you with fat bitpipes can be have it for the cost of bandwidth. I encourage those of you with the budget to grab a box, however; between the books and what SuSE is putting back into the community, it's well worth the investment.