First Look at openSUSE 11.4

If you're looking for excitement, the openSUSE 11.4 release is probably not for you. On the other hand, Linux users who like boring, dependable, and usable should look a bit more closely. While openSUSE isn't chock full of changes, it does provide a solid no-nonsense distro for the adult in you.

Despite all the uncertainty around the Novell sale, the openSUSE community keeps plugging away. The 11.4 release is just a bit over a month away, and it’s looking very solid. A little dull, but solid.

openSUSE is on a bit of an unusual release schedule. On one hand, you’ve got Fedora and Ubuntu which come out every six months (give or take, in the case of Fedora). On the other, you’ve got Debian, which comes out whenever the Hell the Debian team decides that it’s bloody well ready. Somewhere in the middle, there’s openSUSE, which is on an eight-month release cycle.

From 2008 to early 2010, I used openSUSE on all my machines because I’m a firm believer in the “eat your own dog food” philosophy. The 10.3 release was a bit rough, but 11.0 through 11.2 were quite good, but I did get a bit restless at using just one distro. After leaving Novell I started playing with Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and Fedora a lot more frequently. Returning to openSUSE is sort of like going back to the old hometown: A few things have changed, but it’s mostly just as I remember it.

The last release (11.3) came out in July of last year, and the next release is scheduled for March 10. You can be relatively confident in that date — openSUSE was one of the last distros to feature a retail box (a legacy of the SUSE business prior to the company’s acquisition by Novell), and the development schedule and process still reflects the need to hit deadlines. Even though the final release is a month off, the 11.4m6 release (sixth and last milestone) is fairly solid. I ran into one instance of openSUSE mysteriously dropping my network connection, but I couldn’t replicate it. Other than that, the release has been very solid.


GNOME and KDE are supposed to be equally well supported with openSUSE, but KDE is the default if you use the DVD installer. You can opt for the live CDs, but the bulk of openSUSE users still go for the DVD and KDE — so I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at the new KDE as well.

openSUSE 11.4 will come with KDE 4.6 and GNOME 2.32. Because of the release schedule, openSUSE 11.4 will be a few weeks ahead of the final GNOME 3.0 release, but the KDE 4.6 release landed in January, so there’s plenty of time for the openSUSE folks to get that in shape for the release. A GNOME 3.0 spin of 11.4 should be along shortly after GNOME 3.0 is available, though.

SUSE/openSUSE has a long history with KDE, and it shows. I’ve tried the Kubuntu KDE 4.6 packages and openSUSE’s implementation — and openSUSE seems to do a bit of a better job with KDE in my opinion. On the same hardware (or same virtual machine), openSUSE seems a bit snappier. There are little touches as well. For example, when I run KDE in VMware and resize the display, the fonts are completely horked in Kubuntu — but resize just fine in openSUSE.

The default set of applications is a bit different as well. For example, Kubuntu folks get Rekonq as their default browser, while openSUSE is a bit more sensible and ships Firefox. Even better, the openSUSE folks have wisely opted to ship Firefox 4.0 beta rather than standardizing on the 3.6x series, which is more or less obsolete with Firefox 4.0 around the corner. As a rule, I think the openSUSE folks do a good job of balancing between shipping stable software and software that’s as new as possible.

But there are some disappointments with openSUSE as well. For example, the package selection is a lot narrower than the ‘buntu family or Fedora. Though I usually use Firefox, I like to install the Chromium package and keep up with that. But searching for Chromium turns up a big goose egg. Now, and I can anticipate the comments already, I bet I could find Chromium in an openSUSE Build Service repository. But having to add repository after repository to get a package gets old.

One of the things that’s new in 11.4 is, pardon the expression, zippier downloads and performance improvements in downloading packages. You’ll also find “cronie,” which is a replacement for the cron daemon, a preview of systemd, and dracut, which is a new initramfs infrastructure. All great stuff, but this is primarily stuff that’s being pulled in from Fedora, aside from Zypper development. The actual new and exciting stuff that’s actually originated from Novell/openSUSE seems very minimal. There’s a lot of pulling in technologies from Fedora and to a lesser extent Ubuntu (openSUSE 11.4 should have Unity packages as well as GNOME 3.0).

Tumble and Evergreen

Though they’re not officially part of the 11.4 release, Tumble and Evergreen are worth a mention.

Evergreen is the effort to extend support for openSUSE releases past the official 18 months. Right now, a small cadre of openSUSE contributors are working on 11.1, which officially went end of life in December. I’d give this about a 30% chance of making it to the end of the year. The folks who are working on it are working hard, but providing long-term support for a community distro is unrewarding work. This is why, after all, companies like Red Hat and Novell have a bunch of engineers on staff doing the work for the enterprise distros.

Tumble is an effort led by Greg Kroah-Hartman to provide a rolling release distribution based on openSUSE. This has some potential — I’d like to see a solid, well-polished Linux distribution that offers major software like GNOME and KDE as they’re released, rather than waiting until the eight or six-month milestones. I wouldn’t recommend that model for, say, my family — but for Linux enthusiasts openSUSE Tumble promises to be very interesting.

Good, but Conservative

Final verdict on openSUSE 11.4 so far? It’s very good, but very conservative — and there’s not a lot of innovation coming directly from the openSUSE camp when compared to Fedora and Ubuntu. But for KDE fans, openSUSE should be at the top of the list of distros to try (if not already using it, of course).

Even though I was using a “milestone” release, I didn’t run into any major glitches or crashes. I didn’t test it on a terribly wide range of hardware, but overall it seems very stable — but a little dull.

A lot of the focus is “under the hood,” where most users aren’t going to notice changes as long as they’re well-done. New Python, and D language support? Great if you’re a developer and want to use Python or D, users really don’t care much.

Then again, excitement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if you’re just using a machine for day to day work. If you’re looking for a well-polished Linux distribution that emphasizes quality and stability, openSUSE is very much worth trying.

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