When we last heard from John Halamka it was October 2006, and the CareGroup CIO had wrapped up a three-month trial of four different operating systems. That summer, Halamka had embarked on a quest to find a viable alternative to the Microsoft desktop—fed up as he was with Windows’ instability. In July, he used nothing but a MacBook running OS X for work. The next month, he spent 31 frustrating days troubleshooting Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora. In September, he returned to his Windows XP machine to compare it side by side with the others. Our scientific CIO concluded after his three month tour that his ideal computing machine would be a Dell D420 subnotebook running OS X. Given that such a machine doesn’t yet exist out of the box, Halamka reluctantly returned to using regular Windows at work simply because his newly beloved MacBook ran too hot and was too heavy to lug everywhere the jet-set CIO needs to go (though he did continue to use it at home).
CIO.com documented Halamka’s OS tests—what he liked, disliked and his conclusions—in Windows vs. Linux vs. OS X. The story struck a nerve with many readers. Halamka says the biggest criticism he received came from the legions of Linux loyalists who tisk-tisked him for trying only two varieties of Linux—and the least consumer-friendly distributions at that. They suggested he try SUSE (pronounced SOO-za or SOO-sa) and Ubuntu. So he did. Keep reading to find out what Halamka thinks of Novell’s SUSE Enterprise Linux Desktop (SLED), and stay tuned in July for his take on Ubuntu.
Novell SUSE Linux: A consumer-friendly version of Linux that’s “good enough. ”
Configuration: Lenovo X60 notebook running Novell’s SUSE 10 Service Pack 1 Release Candidate 3. The OS was bundled with OpenOffice 2.0 Novell Edition, which includes applications for word processing and creating spreadsheets and presentations. The OS also includes the open-source Evolution e-mail client, the Citrix ICA client (used with Citrix presentation server), Gimp (the open-source answer to Photoshop), DIA diagramming software, a project tracking application, Real Player 10, the Kino audio and video editor, Totem movie player and Banshee, the open-source version of iTunes. All that software comes to a grand total of $50 for one year.
What he liked: Heading into the month of using SUSE as his sole operating system, Halamka was a little dubious. He didn’t know what to expect from an operating system refined and distributed by Novell, a company with a 24-year history in networking. After experiencing last summer the unique frustrations of two other Linux distributions, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora, he wasn’t sure he’d get a stable, reliable, user-friendly computing experience.
To his surprise, Halamka found in SUSE a version of the Linux operating system that didn’t crash or lock up once during the month he used it; that booted quickly (within 30 seconds); that was easy enough to navigate, and was well integrated with the Lenovo hardware. “It felt like a coherent suite of applications and functionality, ” he says. “This is the first open-source operating system [I’ve used] that has good wireless support, good USB support and a suite of software tools that allow a knowledge worker to get work done. Fedora was cutting edge but unstable. Red Hat [Enterprise Linux] was stable but didn’t support all of my USB devices. [SUSE] has stability and support for both. ”
Indeed, when Halamka was given a remote mouse to use during one of the many presentations he gave in April, he wasn’t sure if it was going to work in light of the difficulties he faced getting RHEL to recognize USB drives. But when he put the USB into his laptop, the mouse began working instantly.
He had similarly seamless experiences with his wired networks and home wireless network, both of which worked well with his SUSE configuration. He had no problem connecting to the HP K550 printer he uses at home over a WPA/PEAP wireless network. Nor did he have problems connecting to a workgroup printer over CareGroup’s corporate network. Even when traveling in Europe, as he did during the month he tested SUSE, he didn’t have a single problem with the OS or wireless connectivity.
Overall, the system worked so smoothly because Lenovo and Novell configured the operating system to work on the X60 machines. In other words, the hardware and the operating system software were made to work together; had he tried putting SUSE on different hardware, it might not have operated as well. Because the laptop was preconfigured to work with the OS, Halamka could get to work within a minute of booting up his new computer. With the exception of the Evolution e-mail client, which we’ll discuss in Dislikes, Halamka says the applications worked flawlessly. He was also impressed with Novell’s support organization, which he describes as very responsive and committed to creating an integrated open-source desktop for the typical user. (Novell is aware of Halamka’s experiment and of the Windows vs. Linux vs. OS X story.)
All in all, SUSE exceeded Halamka’s expectations, even if they were a little low to begin with.
What he disliked: Though SUSE 10 worked smoothly on the whole, it wasn’t without its quirks. With the exception of a problem with Evolution that threatened Halamka’s productivity, the idiosyncrasies in the OS ranged from largely insignificant to mildly annoying.
Starting with the small stuff, certain configuration options, such as the ability to put his laptop into sleep mode, were nested deep in utility submenus, which made them hard for Halamka to find the first time around. When he used the search feature in the help menu, it didn’t always yield relevant results.
Higher on the frustration scale was the problem Halamka had with his “keyring,” a central repository that stores all of his user names and passwords for applications on his computer. Had the keyring been working properly, he would have gained instant access to all of his applications once he logged in to the keyring and would not have had to enter his user name and password for, say, Evolution e-mail. Instead, every time he launched Evolution, he was prompted for the password even though he had already logged in to it. When this happened, he reentered his keyring password and was admitted to the application. The problem was annoying because the keyring application simply should have worked as intended. When he tried to fix the issue himself, he had to type in the command “gnome-keyring-manager” to execute the function since there was no keyring manager icon on the desktop. He then tried resetting his keyring, but that didn’t solve the problem. A patch from Novell eventually fixed the bug in the keyring application.
More problematic than the keyring was the fact that Halamka’s laptop with SUSE 10 didn’t recognize CareGroup hospital Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center’s secure wireless network, which follows the WPA/EAP-FAST protocol. Halamka says this isn’t so much an issue with SUSE as it is with EAP; EAP, he says, is always the last protocol wireless manufacturers support. Halamka says Novell is updating SUSE 10 to recognize the WPA/EAP-FAST protocol. In the meantime, while at Beth Israel, he has to use a wired connection or the hospital’s guest wireless network with SSL VPN. “This works fine for all apps but requires that I launch SSLVPN whenever I connect to the wireless network,” he says.
The Evolution e-mail client presented the biggest problem. Every time he launched the application, he had to wait five minutes to use it, until it synced with CareGroup’s Microsoft Exchange server. If he deleted an e-mail before the entire store of deleted e-mails had synced, or if he tried sending an e-mail before all stored e-mails had synced, the application would crash. (Note that this was not a problem with the Novell SUSE 10 OS.) Halamka asked Novell if there was a way to sync only the most recent 100 e-mails, and Novell developed such a fix. Once he installed it, Evolution started up in 30 seconds (instead of five minutes), but Novell’s patch had its own problems: To install it, Halamka had to downgrade from Evolution version 14 to version 13, but every time he launched Evolution v. 13, he was prompted to update the software, even though he was running the older version on purpose. He found the pop-up prompts annoying, and he had no way to make them go away permanently.
Halamka notes that the problem he encountered with Evolution isn’t due to any inherent flaws in the e-mail application; Evolution just doesn’t work well as a front end to Exchange, he says. The fact that a Microsoft product doesn’t play nicely with an open-source product shouldn’t come as a surprise given the Redmond, Wash.-based company’s historically vitriolic stance toward open source. However, you might think in light of the partnership Microsoft and Novell struck last year that the two applications would (eventually) work well together. That is, of course, if it is indeed a real partnership—something that many skeptical members of the open-source community question. But that’s a story for another time....
Workarounds: One of the minor annoyances Halamka encountered with SUSE was that he couldn’t easily disable automatic updates to the OS; there was no way to deactivate them through the user interface. He had to uncheck a catalog on the operating system that drives update checking to turn off the recurring notifications.
Unlike the MacBook, the X60 running SUSE 10 didn’t always reconnect to wireless networks upon waking from sleep mode. Halamka says a bug in the X60’s chipset prevents the computer from consistently reestablishing the wireless connection after coming out of hibernation. Rebooting the computer reestablished the connection, as did using the command line “/sbin/rcnetwork restart.” Even faster and more convenient than rebooting and easier than writing a command was flipping the X60’s on-off switch for wireless connectivity that’s on the front of the machine. A simple flip of the switch reset the device and allowed it to reconnect with the wireless network.
Finally, when it came time to wait the five minutes necessary for Exchange and Evolution to sync upon launching Evolution (before he got the patch from Novell that sped up the startup process), Halamka found an alternate way to maximize his time: He simply accessed his e-mail over the Web.
Conclusion: Halamka had more to like than dislike with Novell SUSE 10. Even though the operating system necessitated a few patches and produced a few tedious problems, the importance of the OS’s positives—its security, stability, price and hardware support—outweighed the negatives. It was far more stable than Fedora, and unlike RHEL, it supported all the latest hardware.
“The X60 running Novell SUSE is the first Linux laptop I have used that is good enough to be my only computing device,” he says. “Yes, it had a patch for the keyring. Yes, I had to come up with a workaround for wireless, but it’s basically good enough. The SUSE platform has just the functions I need without a lot of the bells and whistles that can be slow and cumbersome and lead to a lack of reliability and security.”
Though he personally is pleased with the OS, Halamka is not so sure he’d deploy it widely in his organization. “It feels well-integrated and well-supported enough to be used in selected circumstances in my organization, but I don’t know enough about the remote management tools and capabilities for it,” he says. He would consider running Novell SUSE on kiosks used exclusively for browsing the Web in CareGroup’s hospitals. He also thinks it would be fine for early adopters of new technology who are willing to adapt to slightly different user interfaces and experiences. “For your average administrator or manager who is very comfortable with Windows 95, 98 and XP, it might be a little bit of a leap,” he adds.
Though he was pleased with SUSE, he’s still waiting for a lightweight MacBook. Of course, Ubuntu could convert him away from Apple. We’ll have to wait and see.
Second Opinion: A viable alternative to Microsoft on the desktop
The Linux expert who commented on Halamka’s experience with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora weighs in on the CIO’s month with SUSE.
By David Torre
Frequently mispronounced in the United States, SUSE (pronounced “SOO-sa”) was originally a German Unix consulting group that promoted a variant of the Slackware Linux distribution that was localized for German users. In November 2003, Novell acquired SUSE Linux, which has since become one of the predominant commercial Linux distributions; it is often certified to run commercial applications from Oracle, IBM and other software giants.
Novell touts security, commercial support, and ease of use as the main selling points of SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) and offers a variety of additional products to assist IT shops with security and administration. One such product is AppArmor, a mandatory access control (MAC) system that regulates access to files and actions within an operating system. AppArmor is a drastically simplified alternative to the ultra-complex SELinux MAC system that’s common in Red Hat and other Linux distributions. Another product is the ZENworks suite, which allows IT administrators to globally control software deployment, system configurations, and other various system properties across all Windows and Linux machines throughout the entire enterprise computing environment.
Although successful, some industry professionals perceive SUSE Enterprise Linux as perpetually occupying second place in the overall commercial Linux market, where it’s overshadowed by long-standing Linux vendor Red Hat. However, the recent partnership between Novell and Microsoft has propelled Novell to center stage in the open-source community. The mutually lucrative marketing deal between the former adversaries aims to improve interoperability between Linux and Microsoft products by developing standardized document formats and offering better support of each other’s operating systems in virtualized environments. More importantly, the Microsoft-Novell deal strives to provide Novell Linux customers legal protection from Microsoft patent infringement lawsuits—a card Microsoft often pulls on Linux and open-source adopters to deter them from using the software.
Microsoft’s recent deals with Xandros and Linspire—two companies that offer Linux-based operating systems—in addition to Novell, convey an overall shift in its attitude toward Linux: Microsoft may be realizing that it’s better to cooperatively compete with Linux rather than compete directly against it. However, since Linux and open-source software are typically disjointed development efforts that don’t belong to any single corporate entity, it will be interesting to see if Microsoft continues to pursue patent infringement claims against the Linux vendors who are not currently partnering with it.
As for Halamka’s experience with SUSE, it wasn’t surprising to see improved results over his experiments with RHEL and Fedora, given that the laptop hardware used in this test was officially certified by Novell. Choosing supported hardware in any type of operating system deployment is often what differentiates a smooth and successful rollout from an exercise in utter frustration. Obviously, no operating system is perfect, but with minimal annoyances in this round of Linux testing, Halamka has proven that Linux provides a viable alternative to Microsoft Windows on the enterprise desktop. Of course, I would not recommend replacing every Windows-based desktop in his enterprise with a Linux workstation without conducting at least introductory end user training. It’s true that switching to Linux would add the requirement of end user training, but one may argue that upgrading from Windows XP/Office 2003 to Windows Vista/Office 2007 also warrants some significant end user training—unless you enjoy hearing the question, “Where did all the file menus in Office 2007 go?” over and over. The question I leave for CIOs to ponder is, if training is inevitable, why not examine the possibilities of Linux within your enterprise?
David Torre is the founder and CTO of open-source consultancy Atomic Fission.