June 30, 2005

Review: SUSE Professional 9.3

Author: Joe Barr

For the past several weeks, I've been running my home office LAN exclusively on SUSE 9.3 Professional. I found this latest version, released in March, to be an excellent implementation of the Linux operating system. It brings Linux's levels of ease of use and configurability to an all-time high.I moved to a single platform across the LAN because of my frustration in trying to share a printer on my desktop machine with other machines on the LAN. I had been happily running Debian Woody on my desktop and Ubuntu on the workstation until I began using my workstation more and needing to print from it as often as from the desktop. After several hours of frustration, which had me agreeing with Eric S. Raymond's opinion on configuring CUPS, I decided that a common platform might be the answer. A month before SUSE 9.3 was released, I installed SUSE 9.2 on both systems, and in less time than I had spent unsuccessfully tinkering with CUPS, it "just worked."


Smooth, easy, problem-free Linux installs are no longer news, so I won't walk you through these three installs, but I did note a few things worth mentioning.

I upgraded the GNOME desktop box rather than doing a wipe-and-copy full installation. It took about an hour, not counting the time to perform system updates. My only problem was the loss of one application that I had installed from RPMs obtained from the developers rather than from SUSE. The upgrade process warned that my system might become unstable if I didn't remove Xlog, evidently because of some sort of conflict over libexpat.so. I chose to remove it rather than risk eternal damnation in the form of an unstable system. When I reinstalled Xlog later, I did so without suffering the wrath of YaST.

The test environment
I installed SUSE Professional 9.3 on three networked clients: the desktop machine where I do most of my writing and research, a workstation I use for testing and HAM radio activity, and a laptop that's networked sometimes via Category 5 cable, and sometimes wireless.

The desktop machine is a homebrew, driven by an AMD XP2000+ Athlon CPU with 1GB of DDR memory. It includes three hard drives, one of which is dedicated to the/home partition. It also has an HP CD-Writer Plus 9100b CD-ROM drive and an Epson Stylus CX5400 printer/scanner. The Ethernet chip on the Abit mainboard is a VIA VT6102 Rhine II. An Nvidia GeForce4 MMX 440 card and a ViewSonic VP171B display provide the video.

My workstation is also a homebrew machine with an Abit mainboard. The CPU and on-board Ethernet are similar to those on the desktop, but it has only 512MB of memory. The video card is a 3Dfx Voodoo 3 and the display is an ILO L15LCBT. It has a single large hard drive divided into three partitions:/root,/home, and/backup. The backup partition is used to back up data from the desktop and laptop. It also has a Sony DW-D22A RW DVD drive.

The laptop is an HP NX5000 notebook, powered by a 1.6GHz Pentium M CPU with 256MB of SDRAM, a 40GB disk drive, and a DVD/CD drive. The NX5000 sports a 15-inch TFT XGA display fed by an Intel 855 GM(i810) graphics card. It also includes an onboard modem, a Compaq AR5212 802.11abg wireless NIC, and an HP BCM4401-BO NIC.

If you're thinking that it's piracy to install a commercial Linux distribution like SUSE from a single boxed set on all my home office machines, you're wrong. Novell explicitly states in the EULA that it's OK to do so.

In 9.3, the Internet connection test actually worked; I can't recall that happening with previous versions of SUSE Linux. Usually the connection test fails, but I end up with Internet access once the install is complete.

Because it did work, I was able to perform the online update sooner than usual. There were 28 updates available -- a lot of patches, considering SUSE 9.3 had just been released about a week earlier. Twenty of them were security patches.

One of the patches I chose to apply was the Nvidia patch to enable 3D video. I was pretty sure that I would have some manual work left to do, but that was not the case. Once again it "just worked," as did everything else (except Xlog) when I booted the upgraded system for the first time.

The installation on the workstation went much quicker, in about half the time as the desktop. Most of that speed gain probably came from using the DVD media instead of CD. Again, I did an upgrade rather than a complete new install, but this time I selected the default KDE environment instead of GNOME. The Internet connection test worked just as it did with the first system. After I applied the online patches, I checked for support for printing from the workstation. It still worked just fine.

I did a complete new install from the DVD on the laptop, and there were no issues to report. Regardless of whether the NIC was wireless or cabled, it "just worked."

After the install

SUSE has always provided tons of applications with its distribution, and this release is no different in that regard. Take your pick from the 5 CDs or 2 DVDs it comes on. You have an easy choice of KDE or GNOME and a great selection of top-notch applications behind them.

Out of the box, SUSE Pro 9.3 comes with version of the Linux kernel and an OpenOffice.org 2.0 prerelease. Online updates to kernel version are currently available. According to the release notes, once the final version 2.0 of OpenOffice.org is available, you'll be able to grab it via online update as well. The SUSE version of OpenOffice.org does not include video and audio playback, since they rely upon the Java Media Framework, which is not a part of the SUSE distribution.

Beagle: Can this dog hunt?
Beagle -- a desktop search tool capable of searching every nook and cranny on your system to find the data you're looking for -- is one of the more interesting components of SUSE 9.3. I've been looking forward to trying it ever since BrainShare last March, where I heard Nat Friedman describing its capabilities.

The version of Beagle in SUSE 9.3 is an alpha version of the code. If you don't keep that in mind, you might be a little more disappointed with Beagle than you have any right to be. That's another way of saying that Beagle may yet end up being the cat's meow, but it's not there yet.

I followed in the instructions in the release notes for running Beagle in GNOME. It's slightly different from what you do in KDE. Per the notes, I ran touch.runbeagle in my/home directory. After doing that, Beagle is started automatically each time I start a GNOME session.

One of the first things I noticed after having Beagle start automatically is its impact on system performance: everything slows down. Running top (see screen shot image) shows why. Beagle is written in Mono, and with Beagle running, Mono takes 80% or more of the CPU cycles at times. Evidently, it's a lot of work to crawl the raw data that exists on the system, and stay on top of it. That usage is not constant, but it occurs often enough that you can't help but notice that apps take longer to start and to respond.

A second thing I noticed is that until it had been running for some time, Beagle was unable to find search items I knew existed in text files, though it could find them in Evolution email right away. Speaking of Evolution, it seemed as if Evolution and Beagle tangled up a few times, with the end result being that the mail client appeared to lock up, requiring me to kill and restart it. After a couple of such instances, I learned that if I simply waited for the processing surge to end, Evolution would eventually respond. But due to that performance hit, I stopped running Beagle.

But as I noted up above, this is an alpha version. After seeing how quickly and easily it could search my rather large email holdings, I'll definitely be tracking this application and reinstalling it when a few more of the bugs have been worked out.

SUSE Pro as SOHO solution

The main thing I wanted to test was SUSE 9.3's mettle in the SOHO market. In this niche, more often than not, there is no professional system administrator on staff to take care of pesky network problems, configuration, and other OS-related troubles. That means that untrained users -- like me -- will have to be able to handle configuration and troubleshooting on their own.

For my usage, printing and file and device sharing were the key ingredients. SUSE 9.2 had cured my CUPS woes, and printing -- with one small exception -- worked well locally and across the network in 9.3. The exception was printing from Mozilla. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. I suspect the problem may be a Java or JavaScript issue which is Web site-specific. Regardless, it was a real pain when I tried to print a page from a site and it didn't work; the print output simply disappeared into the bit bucket.

NFS and the admin blues

Just as printing worked fairly well, so did system administration. Using SUSE's powerful YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool) configuration panels, I was easily able to set up an NFS server on the workstation and an NFS client on the desktop.

One tip that might save other uneducated users some time: don't forget that you need to create a mount point on the client. For example, to access the/backup directory on the workstation from the desktop machine, I created a directory called/media/backup on the desktop, then referenced it as the mount point when configuring my NFS client with YaST.

NFS allows me to create off-machine backups of my mission-critical research and writing. It also lets me access logs and data from my HAM activity on the workstation with tools for printing and reporting on the desktop. For example, I can use Glabels to print QSO cards based on Xlog files on the workstation. Finally, NFS allows me to access data on a DVD drive across the LAN.

NFS is cool and powerful, but I did manage to screw it up. Somehow, probably as a result of a misconfigured firewall on one of the machines, I lost the ability to mount NFS volumes. I spent several hours trying to recover. I even went so far as to consult with a real system admin. I disabled the firewalls on both machines and NFS started working again. I'm still not sure exactly what I did wrong, but I have a hunch it has to do with a firewall rule and DHCP changing the IP address of the workstation following a reboot. The point is that even though a casual user like me can set up network services quickly and easily, we can also screw things up beyond our ability to repair.


SUSE 9.3 is an excellent desktop platform. It's easy to use, well supported, and has enough bleeding-edge components, such as Beagle, to even be considered a little bit edgy. But I wasn't looking at it merely as a desktop solution. The big question I posed for myself was this: Can an ordinary user administer a SOHO network and systems with SUSE Linux Professional 9.3?

The answer is definitely a yes, but with a caveat. There may be instances where your knuckles get scraped -- as mine were when I tinkered with a working NFS configuration and sent it over the edge -- and you need some outside help. I've also learned that having the same platform on each of the machines seems to be a real boon in getting different parts -- such as CUPS -- working together correctly.


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