May 9, 2002

SuSE 8.0 Professional improves on an already good Linux distribution

- By Norbert Cartagena -

I've been using Linux since late 1999. My first distribution was Macmillan Linux Mandrake 6.5. Though I hit some bumps along the road, I got my system up and running, and from that point, I've never looked back. Later, dissatisfaction with Mandrake caused me to look around for another distribution, and a good friend of mine from the
Suncoast Linux Users Group suggested I try SuSE (at that time, version 6.4).
I had some problems getting SuSE up and running, but when it was up, I was impressed with what I saw. My first impressions of the system: easy to use, centrally managed, and clean. I've been a SuSE Linux user ever since.

SuSE's latest offering is its 8.0 Linux distribution. The company was successful with its 7.x series, so I was curious to see if the 8.x series could improve much on what was already available. Currently, SuSE 8.0 is only available for the x86 family of processors,
though SuSE also supports PowerPC, Sparc, and Alpha processors, and will
probably release updated versions in the near future.

I tested SuSE 8.0 Professional on a couple of my home systems. The specs:

Model: Tower I built myself Dell Inspiron 8000 Laptop
Processor: PIII 450 PIII 650
RAM: 128MB 192MB
Monitor: KDS AV-195T Generic LCD, 1400x1050@75hz
Hard Disks: 40GB+10GB 10GB
Video Card: ATI All-In-Wonder 128 8MB ATI Rage 128 Mobility MF
Sound Card: SoundBlaster PCI 16 ES 1983S Maestro 3i
Network Card: Realtek RT8029(AS) 3Com Hurricane NIC/Modem combo
Modem: Generic WinModem 3Com Hurricane NIC/Modem combo
CD: Creative Blaster CD 52x TEAC CD-ROM CD-224E (standard)
Printer: HP 832 C None

Although these machines are modest by today's standards, they exceed SuSE's listed minimum requirements: 486 DX, 64MB RAM, and a 400MB hard drive space--though you'll need at least 6GB of free space in order to install everything. The basic system with office installation will run you about 1.5GB.

With the SuSE Linux 8.0 Professional boxed set, you get the following:

  • Seven CDs with more than 2,300 applications in RPM format, plus one DVD with
    everything, for drop 'n' run convenience.
  • Three manuals: applications manual, Linux basics manual, and a complete
    reference manual.
  • 90-day installation support by phone, fax, and email.
  • Software from IBM, Borland, Sun, Netscape, Real, Opera,
    and many more companies.

Installation

SuSE is known for having a straightforward installation process. Nevertheless, with Linux distributions getting easier and easier to install, the guys up at SuSE headquarters decided it was time to revamp this part of their distribution. The new version
of SuSE offers a three-click approach to installing the operating system. Of
course, you still have all the configurability of the previous versions,
which is good for power users who like a lean system and for people who,
like me, want to install almost everything -- just in case they might someday
need it.

Installation went smoothly on both the tower and laptop. Both were clean
installs; I simply placed my CD in the drive and let it do its thing. Upon boot-up, the first thing I noticed was how much cleaner the install screen looked.

StarOffice interface

With this new, three-section install approach, I simply
had to answer what language I'd be working in, and hardware detection began
doing its magic. Within a minute, my hardware was pretty much configured
and the system ready to install. SuSE detected all my hardware, save
the WinModem in the tower and the built-in 3Com modem on the laptop (this
was no surprise). It also, surprisingly, had problems setting up 3D for my
video card. Aside from that, the install did some interesting things,
like set my printer up with multiple settings for different needs, everything
from 300dpi black and white to photo-realistic.

For things I needed or wanted to configure by hand, such as the network settings and package selection, there was a list, with hyperlinks I could click to take me to that area
of the installation. I was also pleased to find that SuSE automatically set
up previously defined partitions. Generally, I make it a rule to set up a
separate /home partition, but SuSE's scheme of /boot, swap and one big /
(root) works well for the average user who, unlike myself, won't be formatting
his hard drive every two weeks.

After all the software installed (which, with seven CDs can be quite tedious),
setup was a matter of creating a user and putting in a password. I
have to admit, my installation time on the tower was a bit on the long
end, but when you install 5GB-plus of software it's hard not to expect that.
The setup on my laptop is more modest, only about 2.3GB,
which took just over 30 minutes to install.

The default office setup will install KDE3, StarOffice 5.2 and the most commonly used applications. The space requirement is just under 2GB, but includes more than
the average user will need. Surprisingly, Opera is not installed by default
no matter what the configuration, though it's becoming a dominant force
in the Linux Web browser space. If you're an experienced Linux
user, some trimming down is recommended, unless you
don't mind dealing with a cluttered set of menus. If you're using
Linux for the first time, this setup will do fine. Later
configuration with SuSE's YaST2 setup tool is just as easy as the installation process, making the administration of your system a matter of point-and-clickability.

The emphasis on one-step hardware detection and configuration, as well
as the revamping of the installation process, make the entire installation
process intuitive. So easy that SuSE decided to omit the colorful installation
guide that accompanied its 7.x series. To put it bluntly, anyone with
a forehead should find this easy to install. If you want more information,
however, you can find it in the second chapter of the reference manual.

Another interesting omission in this release: no boot modules floppies. With most people using computers that can boot from CD, SuSE decided it wasn't necessary to include the floppy disks. If you need to create a boot floppy you can find the information in the third chapter of the reference manual.

Living with the lizard

By default, SuSE drops a user into the new KDE3 desktop. In fact, in
the default installation, it's the only desktop environment installed. As
soon as you log in for the first time, a screen reading, "Welcome to SuSE," comes up with a number of links to a system tour, SuSE's home page, installation
support page, and its support and hardware databases. The tour is a fairly
complete overview of what the system offers, covering a number of the available
programs in graphics, games, sound, system tools, desktops, documentation
online and off-line, scientific applications, office applications, file
management, and development tools. One thing I can't understand is
why the icons are so thrown about in the default setup.

kde 3.0

I prefer GNOME. It's not the default
interface used by SuSE, so it's not as integrated as KDE, but I do enjoy
looking at it more than any other interface (even though KDE3 looks
quite nice). The default setup for the GNOME desktop is pleasing to the
eye and comes with a range of software offerings, including Evolution,
Galeon, AbiWord, GnuCash and more. According to a colleague of mine, Jeff
Skube, installing the Liquid KDE style engine from mosfet.org will give KDE all the eye candy you'll ever need. Of course,
you can still choose from the plethora of other window managers and desktop
environments, so regardless of whether you look for functionality or design,
you're sure to be pleased.

Tech Support

Though the installations were smooth, the laptop ran into one major problem
after installation. Whenever the laptop is brought back from
sleep mode, the LCD's refresh rates go out of whack and begin to burn up
the screen. This same laptop had worked with SuSE 7.2 without this problem,
as well as with Red Hat 7.1 and 7.2. This was a good time for me to try out tech support.

I
didn't have to wait very long for an answer. After describing my problem to the tech support person, we tried one solution with YaST2's graphics card and monitor module. That didn't work, and there really wasn't much he could do, I guess. He pointed me to Linux on Laptops and began ranting about not being able to support all the hardware out there.

This really isn't that big of an
issue with me because I use my laptop as a desktop system primarily. However,
I'd rather not be on an airplane and fall asleep, only to find that I just
lost my laptop due to a faulty X configuration.

Though it was enjoyable to talk to the guy, the tech support was a bit lackluster, not so much because they didn't know the answer to my problem, but rather because of what seemed to be a dependency on YaST. Tech support presses the issue of "the information is out there, go use it," and that's not all bad. But I was left wondering what SuSE 7.2 and Red Hat have that SuSE
8.0 (and 7.3, for that matter) doesn't.

What I like, what I don't

If you've been around the Linux scene for a bit, you'll know that SuSE's
big claim to fame, other than the lizard, is YaST (Yet another Setup
Tool). It handles pretty much all administration in SuSE. The tool has been developing steadily since the early days of SuSE, and with 8.0 the improvement continues. Saying a final goodbye to the old YaST, YaST2 has taken over and become both the graphical and text-based setup tool for the system (it had been YaST for text and YaST2 for graphics since SuSE 6.3). Again, I have to say it: Anyone with a forehead should find YaST2 easy to use.

Though I found bugs in YaST, I can't say enough about how easy it has been to administer
my system. A good example was my experience with setting up NFS, using
YaST2's NFS server and client modules. I wanted to set up a shared drive
on my tower and to be able to access it through my laptop. With YaST2, I was
able to set up both the server and the client in about three minutes, including
the time that it took YaST2 to come up. Considering my knowledge of NFS
before this was zilch, I'd say this was a good result. Similarly, setting
up my firewall was simple, allowing me to configure the firewall
for whatever services I needed with a couple of mouse clicks. As with previous
versions, installing software updates and security patches via SuSE YOU
(YaST Online Update) was as easy as clicking "next."

Another of SuSE's claims to fame has always been its excellent documentation.
No distribution includes such complete and well written documentation, and
this time it's no different. However, unlike past versions, 8.0 only comes
with three manuals, a departure form the tradition set of five manuals in the 7.x series. Most of these have been consolidated into the reference manual, a 460 page behemoth with everything you'll ever need to know about your SuSE system. As usual, the writing is clear and simple, suitable for any level reader.

Though this isn't a criticism on the distribution, the omission
of the customary SuSE stickers was disappointing. I realize
cost-cutting measures are in order due to the current economic situation,
but the stickers were like the ever addicting bubble wrap: unadulterated
fun. I couldn't begin to tell you how many stickers I have on my boxes, all
thanks to this long standing Linux-distribution tradition.

On a serious note, I had one more item of concern. Linux has
long been viewed as being in the domain of geeks. Part of the reason for
this has been because of the lack of easy program installation. I'm perplexed
that SuSE hasn't picked up on this a bit more. Currently, if you wish to
add any software that's not in the disk, you have two options: one is to
go through YaST2. This one's a pain in the neck, and to be honest,
I've never been able to get it to work. When I point to a directory within
the system, it just complains that it can't mount the medium.

The better choice is to install it by hand using either command line or a GUI tool
such as gnorpm. Yet, would it be that hard to create a script to automate installation of RPM files with YaST2? When you click on an RPM file, it should launch a root verification
program, then launch a software install module within YaST2. I realize this is easier said than done, but the tools are there. Heck, it can even be done with TGZ files, can't it? After all, "./configure,"
"make," and "make install" are the steps required by about 95% of all tar
archives.

Conclusion

SuSE has once again raised the bar for Linux distributions, releasing what might be its best version ever. Whether you've never installed Linux before or you're an experienced Linux user, you'll find SuSE enjoyable to use. A newbie may feel a bit overwhelmed by all the choices, and for that reason, I recommend they try out the Personal edition. For professionals, and those in need of a versatile system, SuSE Linux 8.0 Professional is definitely the way to go, and at $79.95 (USD), you're not going to find a better bang for your buck.

The system has a few bugs, common with new version number releases, which will most likely be resolved in the next release. None of these, however, are big enough to cause any measurable interference under most environments. Overall, SuSE 8.0 should stay on my box for the foreseeable future. SuSE's got a real winner on its hands with this release.

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