December 22, 2003

Face-off: Fedora Core 1 versus the free version of SuSE 9.0

Author: Ken Barber

With the imminent demise of the product known as Red Hat Linux, many people are asking, "Where do I go next?" For IT decision-makers, the question couldn't come at a worse time. Just as Microsoft is dropping support for their most popular version of Windows, prodding budget-conscious managers to consider Linux on the organization desktop, the best-known Linux distribution is suddenly no longer a part of the solution set at the retail level.

As a community college instructor preparing both users and
administrators to use Linux in the workplace, the question of "what now?" has been on my mind as well. What follows is a head-to-head comparison of the free version of the world's second most popular Linux distribution - SuSE 9.0 - and the Red Hat-backed community Linux distribution Fedora Core 1.

My goal was modest: find out which of these distros will work best in my classroom. But as someone training people to use Linux, I also wanted to know how well each distro meets the needs of people in the real world. My questions were:

  • How easy, in terms of employee time, is it to install?
  • How well does it support, and run on, older hardware?
  • How easy is it to configure, maintain and support?
  • How easy is it to apply patches?
  • How much Useful Stuff is already included, and how much time will it take to add what isn't included?
  • How secure is the default install?
  • How easy is it for new users and administrators to learn?
  • And finally, the question on everyone's mind: What about Joe Sixpack?

Here is a "report card" summarizing the grades I would give to the two distributions. For the readers who are pondering replacements for Windows 98 or NT, my (highly biased) opinions of those platforms are also included here for comparison:

CATEGORY FEDORA SUSE WINDOWS
Easy to Install A D B
Easy to configure C A D
Default Security C C F
Patch Management A B F
User Experience/ease of learning C B A

OLDER HARDWARE

If you're running anything less than about a 600 MHz Pentium III,
Fedora is the your only viable option. SuSE is unbearably slow on anything less than that, but Fedora does fine on processors down to about 300 MHz. Also, the free version of SuSE inexplicably lacks driver support for the old NE2000 network cards. This might be an issue in a school or non-profit using older hardware.

INSTALLATION

Fedora is easy and straightforward to install, whether from CD-ROMs or a
network server. Most hardware devices (including network cards) are
auto detected and the correct drivers installed without needless user
input.

In the end, it is probably easier to install (and faster!) than Windows.
The free version of SuSE, on the other hand, is a pain in the neck to install, taking at least twice as much technician time and a considerably higher level of
expertise.

Even when excluding installation from CD-ROM in the comparison (SuSE does not offer ISO images of the free version, it requires a boot CD and ftp), Fedora still wins hands-down. My experience on multiple machines and multiple NICs is that the free SuSE install requires NIC drivers to be configured manually. That can eat up a lot of technician time. Also, an unnecessary amount of technician interaction (clicking "OK" before detecting every class of hardware) is required toward the end of the install. All of this significantly increases the cost of installing the free version of SuSE. Editor's note: I did not have this problem while installing the retail version of SuSE 9.0 Professional.

Both distros contain a tool (kick start in Fedora and autoyast in SuSE) to quickly and easily build a template for pre-configured auto-installs.

CONFIGURATION

SuSE's configuration tools blow everything else right out of the water.
They are far superior to anything that Red Hat (or Microsoft, for that
matter) has ever produced, and are so easy to use that even an MCSE can understand them -- making it possible for Windows techs to be productive more quickly after a migration. Two tools -- SaX for XFree86 configuration and YaST for everything else -- are all that a sysadmin needs to configure everything on the system.

SaX can be run from a command line if the XFree86 configuration is damaged, and even has the ability to modify modeline timings on-the-fly to adjust the size and position of the X display. YaST will also run from a command line, making remote administration over ssh an easy task.

Fedora also has a nice set of configuration tools that were first
introduced in Red Hat Linux 8. They are GUI only, making administration of a remote system (or one without X) more difficult. Also, they are not installed by default and the administrator must learn the names of dozens of commands in order to launch them from a command line.

SECURITY

While Linux still has a long way to go in the arena of security, both
distros have done some very good things that deserve mentioning. In both cases unnecessary services are initially turned off, a firewall is installed by default, and patch management is handled with intelligence and grace. SuSE has a slight edge over Fedora in their firewall tool, and Fedora has a slight edge in patch management.

Both distros provide an adequate firewall, but SuSE's firewall tool allows more choices and does a better job of explaining them than does Fedora's.

Both distros have a small icon in the panel that alerts the user to
patches that need to be installed, but SuSE only includes it on the KDE desktop (not Gnome). Red Hat's up2date agent has historically used RHN (the Red Hat Network) to download patches, but RHN subscriptions are not available with Fedora. To Red Hat's credit, they have tweaked Fedora so that up2date uses yum, a tool written by the Yellowdog Linux team, to install patches from community repositories instead. Yum allows patch retrieval from multiple repositories while YaST only retrieves from a SuSE mirror. And if anything goes wrong with up2date, yum works splendidly and easily from a command line.

THE USER EXPERIENCE

Like it or not, we purists need to recognize that a positive user
experience is important to a successful migration, and that the baseline for user experience is Microsoft's Windows family of products. Since this is Microsoft's loftiest goal (obviously more important than mundane items such as stability and security!) that raises the bar in this area a great deal for Linux distributions.

SuSE definitely has the upper hand here, and not just because they have
chosen (in my opinion) wild-and-sexy KDE over boring-but-functional Gnome as their default desktop environment: for reasons I do not fully understand, my screen looks cleaner and easier to read in SuSE than it does in Fedora, even when running Gnome (which is my own preferred environment). SuSE's menu structure also makes more sense to me.

Another important part of the user experience is the amount of Useful
Stuff that is pre-installed. SuSE also wins in this area: flash content "just works" in SuSE's default browser (Konqueror); it doesn't work in any browser under Fedora. SuSE's multimedia players will play MP3 files; Fedora's will not. SuSE includes the real Acrobat Reader program; Fedora only offers second-rate alternatives. Each of these is important in one environment or another, and the amount of time it takes to add them to a Fedora installation can add significantly to the cost of its deployment.

Finally, ease of learning is also an important part of the user
experience, since it's a safe bet that most migrations are occurring from a non-Linux platform. The easier it is for users and support staff to learn the new platform, the quicker they will become productive again. SuSE also wins here.

For instance, new users are going to have problems wrapping their minds
around the concept of mounting and unmounting floppies and CD-ROMs, and
SuSE makes this a little less painful than does Fedora (especially
considering the fact that under Gnome it's often not possible to unmount a volume because a daemon called "fam" has locked it). This is just one example of the many little things that SuSE has done to make the learning curve -- and the entire user experience -- somewhat better than that under Fedora.

WHAT ABOUT JOE SIXPACK?

Finally, we come to the mythical Home User and the Eternal Quest to bring Linux to the Great Unwashed. I have bad news and good news: Neither distro is quite ready for Joe but both are getting tantalizingly close. Joe could probably install Fedora with a little bit of help, but he would quickly bog down when he tries to use it. He could probably use SuSE with a little help, but there's no way he'll ever install it.

I've never understood why, but home users don't like to supply a
user name and password just to use their computers. We all know how Lindows and a certain monopoly product that rhymes with it deals with that (hint: breaks security) but SuSE deals with it elegantly: it can be configured to auto-login any non-root user of your choice. This is much preferable to making an administrator out of every Homer Simpson who sits down in front of a keyboard.

Fedora's default music player (Rhythymbox) is superior to SuSE's
(Kaffeine), but the process of getting Rhythymbox to play MP3 files isn't trivial. SuSE includes the awesome audio editor Audacity while Fedora does not. Neither distro includes Mplayer, which will play virtually any Windows media file, but is not trivial to compile and install.

And so it goes. Maybe neither one of these free offerings from the top two commercial distributions are quite ready for Joe Sixpack, but both are definitely ready for a more technically savvy audience. If you're faced with making a decision between them, hopefully this article will be of use to you.

Click Here!