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OpenSUSE 11.4 bolstered by Novell services, says review
Apr. 04, 2011

OpenSUSE 11.4 is a modest improvement, hobbled by some installation and font-control issues, says this eWEEK review. Yet OpenSUSE remains compelling thanks to related Novell offerings such as SUSE Studio and OpenSUSE Build Service, plus a new Tumbleweed rolling release option and Evergreen long-term support project.

Released in early March, OpenSUSE 11.4 is a modest new release of the community-oriented Linux-based operating systems from Novell and the OpenSUSE community, marked by a raft of newly updated open source applications and components. As with previous OpenSUSE releases, this distribution can serve in roles ranging from desktop to server. However, where OpenSUSE once stood tall among its Linux rivals, I'd sooner recommend Ubuntu or one of the Red Hat-based distributions for most client-to-server uses.

OpenSUSE 11.4, featuring Firefox 4 and LibreOffice
(Click to enlarge)

From a desktop perspective, the top two OpenSUSE 11.4 highlights -- its inclusion of the Firefox 4 web browser and LibreOffice productivity suite -- are equally accessible on other Linux distributions. For server roles, OpenSUSE's short, 18-month support period is limiting, given the 5- to 10-year terms available from Ubuntu LTS or from rebranded Red Hat distributions.

With that said, what OpenSUSE lacks within the release itself, it helps make up for in the networked services that Novell has assembled around it. What's more, the OpenSUSE project has embarked on a pair of potentially compelling new branches of the distribution including a Tumbleweed rolling release option and an Evergreen project aimed at extending that 18-month support limit.

On the services front, Novell's SUSE Studio makes it easy to create OpenSUSE (or SUSE Linux Enterprise) based machine images through a web-based tool. Along similar lines, Novell's OpenSUSE Build Service offers individuals and organizations a means of building and hosting software packages tailored for OpenSUSE distributions.

Tumbleweed offers OpenSUSE 11.4 users a stable rolling release option
(Click to enlarge)

The Build Service, which the OpenSUSE project taps to build the distribution itself, has also been turned toward launching a new OpenSUSE branch, codenamed Tumbleweed, which will provide rolling upgrades to OpenSUSE systems.

Most popular distributions include a rolling development branch, such as Red Hat's Rawhide, Debian's Sid, or OpenSUSE's own Factory. Unlike these "under-development" releases, Tumbleweed will include the latest versions of pacakges considered to be stable. I'll be interested to see how well the project manages to juggle this rolling update scheme moving forward, but the offer of a reasonably stable, yet always up-to-date distribution should prove attractive to certain users.

Project Evergreen aims for long-term support

Potentially much more compelling than Tumbleweed -- and definitely much more challenging -- is Project Evergreen, an attempt to extend the supported life of OpenSUSE releases beyond the standard 18 months. Evergreen bears a strong resemblance to the ill-fated Fedora Legacy project, which attempted the same feat for no-longer-supported Red Hat Linux and Fedora releases from around 2004 to 2007.

Project Evergreen faces an uphill battle, but the project has the benefit of much better package building tools than were available to the Fedora Legacy project, so given enough interest and participation from the OpenSUSE community and, ideally, from Novell as well, Evergreen could significantly improve the case for OpenSUSE.

USB, font troubles

My tests of OpenSUSE 11.4 got off to a rocky start when, after downloading and verifying the integrity of both the GNOME and KDE desktop versions of OpenSUSE LiveCD media, I was unable to boot the release from a USB stick I created, as directed by the documentation. A visit to Novell's bug tracker turned up a handful of reports on the issue. In my experience, installing from USB media is faster, and USB drives are reusable, so this is the route I normally choose.

I instead burned the install image onto a blank CD and installed the release on a dual-core Dell notebook with 3GB of RAM. I also tested a trio of 11.4 instances -- one KDE, one GNOME, and one headless server -- that I created in OVF format using SUSE Studio and deployed on a VMware vSphere host in our lab.

OpenSUSE 11.4, featuring GNOME 2.32 desktop
(Click to enlarge)

With a test machine up and running on the GNOME desktop, I hit a second significant usability snag -- poor font rendering, particularly in the Firefox web browser. In my time covering Linux, I've clocked many hours wrestling with font and other graphical issues, but for some time now, those issues have been resolved in most other Linux flavors.

I found no shortage of how-tos and tips for improving font appearance on various OpenSUSE versions -- not surprisingly, this advice changes from release to release, as the underlying components change. However, I don't see the point in fiddling with fonts on a particular distribution when this issue has been resolved in others.

I upgraded one of my machines to the project's new Tumbleweed branch, which, as promised, contained newer versions of a handful of packages -- for instance, version 2.6.38 of the Linux kernel, compared to the 11.4 default 2.6.37, and LibreOffice 3.3.2, compared to 3.3.1.

I expect to see more packages appear in Tumbleweed as we move farther from the release date of 11.4. A significant test for Tumbleweed will come when the major version 3 update to the GNOME desktop environment goes stable, most likely several months before the next full OpenSUSE release.

Elsewhere on the versioning and upgrades front, SUSE Studio now includes an option for upgrading instances built on an older version of OpenSUSE to the current release. For example, with a single click, I upgraded one of my 11.1-based appliances to 11.4.


OpenSUSE 11.4 is available in versions for x86 and AMD64 systems, and can be freely downloaded here. The download images available from this site include a 4.7GB DVD image that contains the entire distribution, separate Live CD images that include the GNOME and KDE desktop environments, and slim network-based installer images. OpenSUSE 11.4 is also available in a boxed, physical media version that comes with printed documentation and 90 days of phone-based installation support for $71.50.

OpenSUSE 11.4 screens may be seen in this OpenSUSE 11.4 eWEEK slide show.

Jason Brooks is a writer for our sister publication eWEEK.

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