October 28, 2004

First Look: SUSE Linux Professional 9.2 beta

Author: Joe Barr

Novell recently opened a limited beta of SUSE Linux Professional 9.2, and I've been using it for my work/production machine ever since I got my hands on the five-CD download. No, using a beta release of an operating system as your production system is generally not a good idea. Yes, there are bugs, as expected in beta software. There are also improvements and refinements, as is also to be expected. But overall, well, read on and see.

Installing SUSE 9.2

I've now installed SUSE 9.2 two and a half times on two different machines. The half install aborted midway through the process because of bad media. The other two installs were successful: one an upgrade from SUSE 9.1 on my IBM Thinkpad laptop and the other a similar upgrade on my production desktop machine.

I could have avoided the bad media experience if I had chosen the Manual install and then selected Media Check in order to verify that all five CDs were good. Of course, that adds about an hour to the install.

Ever since a bad upgrade experience several years ago, my normal installation method is a backup of my /home and /etc directories, then a complete install, then a restoration of my original /home. But forget all that -- too much effort. From now on I'll stay with updates unless I'm moving to a new distribution.

The reason for the laptop install was to test an update install. I also experimented by selecting a standard GNOME desktop instead of KDE. It worked just fine -- so well, in fact, that I decided to brave an update on my production machine.

The installation splash screen is a little prettier -- well, at least a little flashier -- than the one in the previous version. I think it also shows more installation options than it used to. Booting from CD 1, you are given the choice of:

  • Boot From Hard Disk
  • Install
  • Install ACPI Disabled
  • Install Failsafe Settings
  • Manual Installation
  • Repair System
  • Memory Check

You're given 20 seconds to make a choice. At the end of that time, SUSE simply boots from the hard drive, just as if you had never slipped the CD into place.

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The laptop installation negotiated the Dual Boot setup without a hitch. When it was done, SUSE 9.2 appeared as the default boot choice, but you can choose to boot Windows.

I selected the standard GNOME desktop for the laptop, and standard KDE for the desktop machine. It appears that regardless of which you select, the other is available to you. I have been using GNOME 2.6 as my desktop environment, in spite of the fact that I selected a standard KDE install. All I had to do to get from one environment to the other was change my login preference. It appears that Novell favors the SUSE configuration, though. When I selected GNOME for the laptop installation, it asked if I were really sure that I wanted to do that.

After I agreed to the Macromedia Flash Player license agreement, the installation routine began installing packages. The installation screen uses a thermometer-like bar graph on the right side to show your progress. It alternates between showing either the time or the amount of data remaining to be copied. I found the estimates to complete to be conservative.

One nice touch I noticed was that the time until the next CD change was also shown.

After the first CD is completely finished, the installer reboots your system before continuing to copy and configure the requisite packages. It took a little under an hour for installation.

Minor bumps in the road

This release is a beta -- it is not perfect, and one imperfection showed up immediately. Just as my first boot completed and KDE 3.3 started up -- and every time I've started KDE 3.3 since -- I've heard the sound of breaking glass. Once the KDE startup logo disappeared, I could read the Error Message. It said "Could not start Process: Unable to create IO-slave: Klauncher said: Unknown protocol 'devices.'" I'm not sure of the cause of the error or the consequences, but I'm pretty sure it'll be fixed before SUSE 9.2 goes gold.

I hit another bump when I started Evolution for the first time. Evolution 2.0 wants its files formatted differently than the earlier versions, so a file conversion process is required to bring the old files up to snuff. About halfway through the process, it crashed.

I was able to restart Evolution, and it continued the conversion, with a dialog screen appearing that allowed me to bypass folders already converted. The only lingering effect of the crash was that I ended up with duplicate entries for everything I had in my Contacts.

One more thing. The first time I ran YAST2 in order to install a needed software package, both Evolution and GEdit crashed. That's only happened one time, though I've used YAST2 for several subsequent software installs with both Evolution and GEdit running since then.

Using SUSE 9.2

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I was unsure whether there would be any later consequences from the KDE error at startup, so I decided to try changing over to the GNOME desktop environment. I logged out and logged back in, and selected GNOME as the session type as I did. Lo and behold, there was my old friend GNOME. Well, an updated version of my old friend: this was GNOME 2.6.

There are enough people who feel a strong preference for KDE or GNOME to provide sufficient provisions for an extended geek food-fight. Enjoy them while you can, but it looks to me as if SUSE intends to merge the two into one unified environment.

In SUSE 9.2, for example, it's not pure GNOME or pure KDE regardless of which you select for the session type. I had to smile after clicking on Help in GNOME. Why? Because the GNOME 2.6 User Guide was presented by the KDE Help Center framework.

Where I remember the GNOME logo being in previous versions -- on the upper left corner of the top panel -- there is now a capital letter N. I have the feeling that just as KDE and GNOME are being blended into something new, the SUSE brand on this Linux distribution will gradually give way to Novell.

The most compelling reason I've found for staying with the beta 9.2 is the fact that it contains the latest versions of many of my favorite applications. Evolution 2.0, for example, has a number of enhancements that make it better than ever.

Tired of fighting spam? Evolution 2.0 sports its own Spam Assassin. You teach it the difference between good and evil incoming mail by clicking on Junk or Not Junk. It learns to filter your incoming mail and place any offensive mail out of sight in a special Junk folder.

The Inbox now sits atop your list of folders, where it should be. A panel on the lower left of the screen allows you quick easy navigation between Mail, Contacts, Calendars, and ToDo Lists.

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I use Gnumeric on a daily basis, and version 1.2.13 in SUSE 9.2 is a delight. One thing that bothered me about earlier releases was that changing the format of a cell to centered justification required you to both change the format and the focus as if you were changing the contents of the cell. Not so in this version. You change the format, it changes the appearance.

I am also able to configure the Gnumeric icon on my lower panel to open a specific file when I click on it. Whether a fault of my installation of SUSE or KDE last time, or for some other reason, I was never able to change the properties associated with Gnumeric in 9.1, so I could never have it open the file for me.

But not all the newest software is a step forward. The latest GEdit has issues. I can crash it fairly easily by opening two files from different directories and then trying to do a save. I'm hoping that it is strictly a GEdit issue and not the generic GNOME file handling dialog itself.

Need a browser? SUSE 9.2 offers you a choice of Firefox, Mozilla, or Epiphany 1.2.5 from the standard GNOME menu. You get the same selection if you're in the KDE environment. Wanna chat? The GNOME environment comes with your choice of Gaim or XChat on the menu. The KDE environment has both of those, plus Gabber.

My one real complaint about SUSE 9.2 is the shutdown/reboot procedure. Long, long ago, in a much less friendly Linux user environment, Ctl-Alt-Del would give you a reboot right away, no questions asked. Now, after years of the Windowmization of Linux, we've reached the point where you can reboot simply by clicking on System -> Log Out -> Restart -> Menu -> Shutdown -> Restart. I guess it could be worse. At least we don't have to click on Start.

Color me pleased overall with the state of SUSE 9.2. I can run GNOME or KDE as the mood strikes me. I can select best-of-breed applications I know and love regardless of the environment. The latest -- and previously unavailable as supported SUSE packages -- versions of those apps are included. Oh, SUSE 9.2 has new eye candy, too. But I can work better and faster in SUSE 9.2 than I did before, and that's the big thing.


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