Reviewed: With SUSE Linux Enterprise 11, Novell builds upon OpenSUSE 11.1, the community distribution that shipped last summer. It comes in two versions for the enterprise market: SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) and Desktop (SLED). Striking new features are the Compiz Fusion 3D compositing window manager, KDE 4.1, Gnome 2.24 and a redesigned installer, but Mono-haters won't be happy to see the large amount of Microsoft .NET software that ships as standard.
SLE's installer is rather complex, which has its advantages and disadvantages. If you're used to Ubuntu's simple and straightforward seven-step installer, you risk getting lost in SLE's installation process. However, with complexity comes flexibility: in a lot of install windows you can click on a button to enter ‘expert options'. Moreover, the SUSE developers have really thought well about all options and the whole behaviour of the installer. For example, when you create a user account you can choose whether the user receives emails from the system's services, and the installer gives a warning if your password is too simple.
The complex installation procedure is subdivided into three conceptually simple tasks: preparation, installation and configuration. The installer for the Desktop version is simpler and uses other default options. It's in these small differences between the Server and Desktop version that you see that a lot of effort has been made to make an installer that really makes sense. However, one annoying thing is that you have to click through six (!) licence agreements in SLED's installer.
SUSE Linux in the clouds
As all recent enterprise Linux distributions do, SLE's big focus is on virtualisation. Novell has updated the Xen hypervisor to version 3.3.1; the distribution is also optimised to run on Microsoft Hyper-V, Xen and VMware ESX. Moreover, SLE includes improvements to make it more manageable by Windows system administrators under Microsoft System Centre, both as a physical and virtual machine. Cloud computing is also lurking around the horizon: Novell is talking with Amazon to certify SLE 11 to run on the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).
Despite its unwieldy design, Yast is a big plus point for SUSE. In theory it offers one central place for all system management tasks. However, it's slightly annoying that not all things can be configured here and that you have to look at two other places to administer the system: the Control Centre and the System part of the Application Browser. With such a mature tool as Yast in the distribution, this should be streamlined.
Microsoft .NET applications, such as Banshee, Tomboy and F-Spot, have a prominent place in the SUSE enterprise desktop.
The best Windows companion
Knowing that Microsoft and Novell have their controversial interoperability agreement since 2006, it should not be surprising that SUSE Linux Enterprise has a lot of functionality to work together with Windows systems. SLED 11 bundles Novell's version of OpenOffice.org 3.0, which supports the latest Microsoft Office 2007 Open XML document formats. The Evolution email client also supports the MAPI protocol of the Microsoft Exchange server and is able to import Outlook PST files directly. Firefox 3.0 comes bundled with support for Microsoft Silverlight 1.0, Adobe Flash, Sun Java and smartcards.
Another central component in SLE is the .NET implementation Mono, which is visible in the Desktop version where Mono applications like the media player Banshee and the photo browser F-Spot get a prominent place. SLED 11 goes further with Moonlight, the Mono-based project that implements Microsoft Silverlight rich internet applications in Firefox. SLED 11 also comes with support for Windows Media file formats for audio and video in the Moonshine project, a sort of Windows Media Player for Linux. While some people are happy just to get on with their computing tasks, we think this is probably going to prove a step too far for many users.
Together with SLE 11, Novell introduces the Mono Extension, a runtime environment that enables you to run unmodified .NET applications on SUSE Linux Enterprise, although it doesn't work yet with all applications. With this functionality, Novell tries to position SUSE as an alternative to Windows for people who have to run .NET applications in their enterprise. Novell even has an online tool to test if your .NET application is compatible with Mono. The .NET applications even work on non-x86 machines, such as IBM mainframes. SLE's Mono Extension is a product that has to be bought separately.
All this interoperability functionality is also possible in other Linux distributions, but SUSE Linux Enterprise offers them out of the box. If your company has a mixed environment with Windows and Linux machines (as many do), you couldn't get a better Linux distribution than SUSE's. That's not quite damning through faint praise, but it's fair to say there is a large group of (very vocal) people who resent every advance Mono makes onto the Linux desktop.
Our rating: A polished, solid and highly interoperable Linux distribution - if you're a Windows-centric enterprise. 9/10
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