Hands on with SUSE Studio
Novell has launched SUSE Studio, a service that allows anyone to create their own Linux distro respin using nothing more than their web browser. But did you know Novell already has plans to open source the new technology it contains? We spoke to Nat Friedman to get more information, then took it for a test drive ourselves...
Given how many distros we already have, you might be forgiven that the last thing we need is to make it easier to make even more. But SUSE Studio targets a new audience: Independent Software Vendors (ISV) who make software for Linux and don't want to force their customers to jump through hoops to get it all working. According to Friedman, this is a key use case for SUSE Studio, because "improper software installation accounts for 50% of their support requests." By combining software with the exact distro configuration required to make it work out of the work, you leave the realm of operating systems and enter that of appliances: things that really do Just Work.
But this comes with its own community-focused side effect. "We want people in the open source community to create custom distros," he continued. "We don't know really what that means, and that's kind of the beauty of it. We don't know where the community will take it... We don't actually know all of the things people have done with SUSE Studio yet." And people certainly are using it - in the last week alone, almost 6300 new appliances have been produced using SUSE Studio.
SUSE Studio lets you build distros entirely through your web browser - it really doesn't get much easier than this...
Does that mean DistroWatch ought to start investigating a major upgrade for its hardware to handle a huge influx of new distros? Not really - although these appliances are quite able to be standalone distros, the majority are more likely to be one-shot configurations that run a specific app, and many others will be test beds for people to have some fun with while taking their first steps with distro creation.
It's this low barrier to entry that Friedman seems most proud of. "We knew that if people had to download something to try it, it would put them off. And if people had to have SUSE it would also stop them. So that's why we made it a web app. But that introduced a new problem, because let's say you build an appliance, well it's sitting on our server not on your computer, so you had to download it."
Nat Friedman demonstrating the SUSE Studio appliance that runs on a toaster*. (*not strictly true)
Novell's, er, novel solution to this problem is called Test Drive, which lets users spin up an instance of their appliance running on Novell's server, with its framebuffer hooked up to a custom Flash applet running on the user's browser. "All you know is that you click Test Drive in your browser and you're watching it boot," explained Friendman. "You can log in, you can poke around in there and make sure everything looks right. You can run your test suite, you can SSH in, or if it's a hosted web app you can you visit it in your web browser. We give you an hour with 512MB of RAM, and that's been super-powerful for people who want to know, 'Is my application working?'"
This in turn seems to have opened up a dozen new problems. After all, booting up a Linux system for the first time writes a lot of data as the system settles in - and you don't really want some of those actions, such as resolv.conf being written out or SSH keys being generated, so SUSE Studio solves the problem by tracking all filesystem writes made inside Test Drive and allowing the user to pick and choose which ones should be saved to the appliance permanently. "From a technical perspective it's even more interesting, because we're doing it outside the OS," Friedman explained. "The guest doesn't in any way need to know how it works. We wanted people to run any kernel or have any special software, because people can build any kind of appliance."
So, are there any reasons why SUSE Studio is less useful than, say, remastering Ubuntu? Clearly Ubuntu has the lead in terms of existing uses - it's early days for SUSE Studio yet, whereas Ubuntu has already served as the core for multiple new distros. Ubuntu - or at least Debian - also provides one of the largest software repositories in the world, which makes it easy to produce a wider range of devices that build on existing software, even if that must all be done in the traditional off-line way. On the flip side, SUSE Studio makes it a cinch to create images for VMware and Xen virtual machines, or Live CD/DVDs and USB flash drives, all through the same interface.
If there is a downside to SUSE Studio, it's the licence. Sure, the distro itself is all open source (unless you choose to include proprietary technology), but the Studio service itself is closed. For a long time, geeks were pressuring Canonical to open up Launchpad back when it was closed, so it's possible Novell may see the same reaction for SUSE Studio. We asked Nat whether Studio would remain closed, and he said, "We actually do plan to open source the few components of Studio that are not yet open, over time, but right now we just had to launch."
Taking SUSE Studio for a spin
Can you build a distro just by clicking a few buttons in a web browser? We took Studio for a spin to find out...
The first step towards building a distro is to choose its base: do you want to inherit from the community-supported OpenSUSE, or do you need the support contracts and reliability that SUSE Linux Enterprise can provide?
Next comes the part every egotist loves: what should your distro be called? This being TuxRadar, we naturally chose to call ours Radarix. Apologies if there's actually a real distro out there with the same name!
Step three is the most important: what software do you want in your distro? This is what sets distros apart, so make your choice wisely. We decided our Killer Feature would be an unerring focus on the One True Text Editor, so we searched for and added Emacs and little else!
You have limited control over configuration of your system using SUSE Studio's web interface, but remember that you can always fire up your machine to make changes by hand later on.
Continuing our focus on Getting Things Done, we decided to do away with the whole graphical user interface thing and start Radarix in text-only mode. Text-only is the new black, don'tcha know?
You can add custom artwork here, but "Built with SUSE Studio" will be super-imposed later on.
When your distro is done (is a distro ever done?), tell SUSE Studio how you want the thing built and it'll produce a downloadable build for you in around 5-10 minutes.
Once the build is finished, click the Test Drive link to fire up a new virtual instance of your distro inside your browser. You get to control it from the off, with any special keys available to be clicked from the list on the left.
Super TuxRadar zoom-in engage!
There is of course a lot more work required if this distro is ever going to be of interest. But for ISVs, all they need to do is add a custom RPM containing their software configuration and the distro is good to go - SUSE Studio is by far the easiest way to produce a custom Linux distro, and, shallow as it might sound, it also manages to leave the competition in the dust on the looks front.
Sure, rating something based on its design doesn't sit well with the uber-geek computing crowd, but we think it's particularly important here because it means the interface is pretty much discoverable - forget having to read manuals, learning how to chroot Debian installs or figuring out how to build to build your own RPM files, because you can just point and click your way around SUSE Studio and have most of the work done in under an hour. For rapid prototyping, SUSE Studio leads the way. For serious customisation, being able to use Test Drive to pick and choose changes makes it an incredible power tool. And, even though it's only in closed beta right now, we're convinced that as more people get involved and push the service to its limits we'll start seeing more ISVs confident to say "yes, we support Linux."
Hello from Novell's marketing machine
A Novell employee once told us that, in yesteryear when Novell's marketing team were pushing brands faster than their coders were pushing software, Novell could easily have switched over to being a T-shirt manufacturing company. It seems their love of marketing hasn't died out, because TuxRadar HQ recently accepted delivery of a suspicious box. Upon opening it, we found this:
Inside was a bag containing dozens of different parts, some plastic, others carefully cut foam. Next to that was a card pointing us towards the assembly instructions and, 10 minutes or so later, we were the, er, proud owners of one of these:
Great success! And even more fun than building a distro with SUSE Studio...