November 17, 2016

Enterprise Linux Showdown: SUSE Linux


SUSE combines tried and tested tools and build methodologies that make this Linux offering a favorite in corporate environments.

SUSE has always been a strong player in the Linux arena. Both the commercial server and desktop versions are solid and enterprise ready, while openSUSE -- the SUSE developed for and with the community -- has become increasingly popular over the years. And, despite some rocky times in the past, the company and its distribution are thriving.

A Brief History of SUSE

SUSE is one of the older Linux distributions and predates both Red Hat and, of course, Ubuntu. In fact, SUSE is the third oldest surviving distribution. Only Debian and Slackware are older.

SUSE, the company, was founded in Germany in 1992 by Roland Dyroff, Thomas Fehr, Burchard Steinbild, and Hubert Mantel. The original name of the company was Gesellschaft für Software und Systementwicklung mbH (Software and Systems Development Corporation), but soon became Software- und System-Entwicklung (i.e., S.u.S.E.), which means Software and Systems Development. SUSE, the distribution, came into being in 1994 as S.u.S.E. 1.0. as a German extension of Slackware. In fact, Slackware's own Patrick Volkerding helped Dyroff and company translate Slackware to German.

The first independent version of SUSE Linux came out in 1996 with a 4.2 version number. The version number was a reference to Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- and the creators jokingly peddled the distro as "the answer to life, the universe and everything."

By 1997, S.u.S.E. had become Germany's biggest Linux distributor and started its expansion into the United States by setting up an office in Oakland, California. In 1998, the company changed its name officially to SuSE Linux Ag. and continued its expansion in Europe, the States, and Asia. Then the 2001 recession struck. Germany was hit hard, and SuSE was forced to reduce its staff. Around this time, the company also introduced SUSE Linux Enterprise Server to try to boost corporate sales.

The Novell Years

In the early 2000s, Novell was suffering its own particular recession, as the market for its core product, Netware, had been declining for years. Seeking a way to invigorate its product line, in 2003, Novell acquired SUSE for $210 million, and SUSE was incorporated as a subsidiary of Novell. During this time, several actions carried out by Novell's management angered the community and cast a dark cloud over the distribution. First, several prominent and outstanding core engineers were laid off. But what made the community really flip was the deal Novell struck with Microsoft.

Steve Ballmer was then CEO at Microsoft and, to put it mildly, he was disliked by the Linux community. After Ballmer called Linux a cancer, any deal struck with him would be regarded with suspicion. The deal Novell did make was a non-aggression agreement, in which Novell licensed patents and intellectual property to Microsoft, and, in turn Microsoft promised it would not sue SUSE Linux clients for using infringing IP in Linux. This deal enraged the Linux community because it implied that Linux contained code copied from Microsoft. Although the agreement also brought a windfall of cash to Novell, the company was already doomed, and in 2010, it was acquired by Attachmate. In the process, SUSE was extricated from Novell, and the patent portfolio and IP of the company were either put under GPL licenses or donated to the Open Invention Network.

Not everything was bad while SUSE was part of Novell. On the bright side, it was during that time that the previously proprietary YaST2 system management dashboard was released under a free GPL license and the openSUSE project was started.

Current Ecosystem

What is known nowadays as SUSE Linux is the commercial version of the distribution, with enterprise grade support and paid licenses. SUSE Linux comes in two flavors: SLES, the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server; and SLED, the SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop.

Apart from running on servers and desktops worldwide, you can also find commercial, but tweaked versions of SUSE Linux powering the London Stock Exchange and used extensively in high performance computing (HPC). The Cray Linux Environment, which powers some of the most powerful supercomputers in the worlds, is a customized SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. IBM's Watson, which beat Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in 2011 and is now used to help diagnose and work out treatment for cancer patients, also runs a customized version of SUSE Linux.

However, even more interesting is the ecosystem that has sprouted up around openSUSE. Today, openSUSE is -- apart from a free distribution for the community -- a test bed for technologies that are later incorporated into the commercial offering, much like what Fedora is to Red Hat.

openSUSE comes in two flavors: Leap is version-based flavor that uses sources from SUSE Linux Enterprise branch and follows the same release cycle. It has minor updates every six months, and a new service pack every year. The first Leap came out in November 2015 and, continuing with the tradition, was given 42.1 as its first release number. Version 42.2 came out on November 15, 2016. Leap is designed to be stable and conservative and is recommended for business and production environments.

openSUSE Tumbleweed, by contrast, is a rolling release. This means Tumbleweed users update incrementally, never having to re-install the system from scratch. openSUSE Tumbleweed evolved from the Factory codebase, which was previously a development platform. Tumbleweed is a stabilized version of Factory and made it into a rolling release distribution.

Although Tumbleweed is mostly very usable, it does tend towards the bleeding edge, and sometimes an update can make the system unstable. Fortunately, the solution usually comes in the next update, which often pops up the next day. Also, thanks to Btrfs's Snapper tool (openSUSE uses Btrfs as the default filesystem format for the main system), you can roll back changes in... well... a snap, and continue working until the amending update turns up.

Finally, as with Fedora and Ubuntu, there are the derivatives -- versions of either Leap or Tumbleweed -- some of which are created by the community and others by the openSUSE team itself. Argon (based on Leap) and Krypton (built on Tumbleweed), for example, like Jonathan Riddell's Neon, taps directly into KDE's git and development repositories. This means that Argon and Krypton allow developers, early testers, and enthusiast adopters to experience the latest KDE software without having to wait for openSUSE developers to package them.

Online Tools

This brings us to SUSE's online services. Over the years, SUSE has put a web front end on many of the tools that were used internally to build the distribution. Thanks to this policy, now everybody can use them.

One of the most immediately useful services for end users is the openSUSE Package Search service. This works more or less like Ubuntu's PPAs: If a package you want to install is not in your default repositories, visit the Package Search website, input the name of the software, and the service will return several options, drawing from alternative repositories. It also makes the process easy, because you can install directly from your web browser. Click on 1 Click Install, and YaST's software management tool will open up and do its thing.

As with PPAs, this process can be a bit hazardous. It’s a good idea to do some research beforehand and make sure the repository you are using is regularly updated and maintained. You must also be careful that it doesn't conflict with any of your other repositories. If you explore the Package Search service, you will soon realize there are literally hundreds of repositories, most containing one or two packages or a very specific subset of applications and libraries. This is because of OBS or the openSUSE Build Service.

This service allows developers to compile, package and share any software you can compile or run locally. Although packaging with OBS is not trivial, it is not exactly rocket science either, and a many an itch has been scratched thanks to it. OBS also allows you to create packages for non-SUSE distributions, including Debian, Ubuntu, Red Hat, and Fedora.

But maybe the most fun service of them all is SUSE Studio, which allows you to create a custom SUSE distribution from scratch. By tailoring repositories, configuration files, and settings and using a step-by-step online assistant, Studio helps you find, add, and remove software to your distribution; resolve dependencies; create configuration scripts; and add files to be included in the image.

When you're done, you can download your derivative as a live ISO that you can burn to a DVD or a USB thumbdrive, create a virtual machine image, or deploy your system to most popular cloud services. You can also share it in the Gallery, which is a good place, by the way, to look for interesting derivatives.


SUSE combines tried and tested tools and build methodologies that make this Linux offering a favorite in corporate environments. At the same time, and thanks to openSUSE and the online services built around it, SUSE Linux can also be daring and exciting. Although it has had low points over its long history, the Linux community is lucky that SUSE Linux is still with us and still going strong.

See the previous articles on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Ubuntu Linux for more information.

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