Ubuntu 6.10, OpenSUSE 10.2 Rise to (and in Some Ways Above) Microsoft's Vista Challenge

By Jason Brooks  |  Print this article Print

Review: Canonical's "Edgy Eft" provides excellent management tools and a broad app catalog; Novell's new OpenSUSE offers GUI-friendly and high-end features.

While the eyes of the IT world have spent years squinting to see Microsoft's slowly unfolding vistas, the companies and individuals that drive open source have been steadily building a case for broader adoption of Linux-based operating systems.

Two of the best all-around Linux distributions to emerge from this process are OpenSUSE 10.2 and Ubuntu 6.10, both of which bundle together the best of what open source has to offer into operating systems that merit consideration for desktop and (some) server workloads.

Ubuntu 6.10, also known as Edgy Eft, is the latest release in the popular line of Linux operating systems from Canonical. Ubuntu is a fairly young distribution, but its roots in Debian give it a solid foundation—both in terms of its code and in its community of users.

This strong foundation is most evident in Ubuntu's excellent software management tools and wide catalog of prepackaged software. Ubuntu's catalog surpasses those of all other Linux distributions we've tested, and its software management tools outclass not only Linux rivals' but also Microsoft Windows' and Apple OS X's.

The strengths of Novell's OpenSUSE 10.2 are rooted in the operating system's history. OpenSUSE 10.2, which began shipping in December, descends from the retail-marketed SUSE Linux, which was long positioned as a direct rival to Windows. As a result, OpenSUSE contains GUI-friendly features such as the Yast suite of configuration tools. What's more, SUSE's background as a direct rival to Red Hat in the enterprise server space means that OpenSUSE ships with high-end elements—such as AppArmor security and Xen virtualization support—that Ubuntu does not offer right out of the box.

You can certainly configure an Ubuntu server to carry out any role that an OpenSUSE box can offer, but, in many cases, this means installing unofficial packages and following community-generated how-to documents.

In contrast, OpenSUSE's Yast offers users a one-stop shop for graphically configuring a laundry list of system settings, including quite a few server configuration tasks. What's more, Yast offers a text-mode front end that looks and works very much like its graphical front-end sibling, which makes it easy to connect to a remote OpenSUSE server.

To upgrade or not to upgrade?

Ubuntu 6.10 is the follow-on to version 6.06 LTSof the distro (Ubuntu releases have a year-month versioning scheme), and, as one would expect, Edgy Eft boasts a number of improvements. These include updates to the GNOME 2.16 desktop environment, OpenOffice 2.0.4, Gaim 2.0 and Firefox 2.0.

However, Edgy Eft lacks the extended support pledge (three years for desktop configurations and five years for server configurations) that the previous version offers. (The "LTS" in Ubuntu 6.06 stands for long-term support). Edgy Eft has a shorter support term—about 18 months—so sites upgrading to Version 6.10 should expect to upgrade again about a year from now.

There's a handful of Windows alternatives that companies would do well to consider. Click here to read more.

We found it very easy to upgrade Dapper Drake (the nickname for Ubuntu 6.06) machines to Edgy Eft—in fact, in-place upgrades are one of Ubuntu's real strengths—but whenever you undertake an OS-wide upgrade, there's potential for breakage. Fortunately, Ubuntu packaging pitfalls are fairly easy to recover from for administrators with a bit of experience using Ubuntu's or Debian's software management tools.

Canonical has not yet announced when it will release the next Ubuntu version with long-term support, but users of Dapper Drake in server roles might be better off waiting for the next LTS release to upgrade.

The support term for OpenSUSE 10.2 is no shorter than for 10.1, so an upgrade from 10.1 makes good sense, especially since it's free. An upgrade makes especially good sense for desktop installations of OpenSUSE, as the newer version brings with it noticeable upgrades to its key desktop applications.

eWEEK Labs believes that either Ubuntu 6.10 or OpenSUSE 10.2 is worthy of replacing Windows XP as a desktop operating system, provided the distros support your target hardware. The Ubuntu installation disk doubles as a LiveCD environment from which users can ensure that Version 6.10 supports their hardware before installing it to their hard drives. At press time, a LiveDVD version of OpenSUSE 10.2—which could serve much the same purpose as the Edgy Eft installation LiveCD—was slated to ship in January.

While considering a move from Windows to OpenSUSE or Ubuntu, what will likely prove more challenging than hardware driver availability is software availability. That is, if your users are attached to Windows-only software for which there's no acceptable Linux-compatible alternative, neither Ubuntu nor OpenSUSE will be an attractive option.

Next Page: Getting it.

Ubuntu Edgy Eft is available for free download at www.ubuntu.com/products/GetUbuntu/download#currentrelease. In addition to the standard LiveCD Ubuntu install disk, we could download an alternative installation disk that features a text-mode version of the installer. The text-mode installer loads faster than the LiveCD and offers expanded installation options, such as the ability to install Ubuntu in an LVM (logical volume manager) configuration.

OpenSUSE 10.2 may be freely downloaded at download.opensuse.org/, either in a set of five CDs or in the form of a single DVD. Alternatively, OpenSUSE 10.2 is available in a $60 retail version that includes printed documentation, installation media for x86 and x86-64 platforms, and 90 days of installation support.

Hardware support

Both Ubuntu 6.10 and OpenSUSE 10.2 are available in x86, x86-64 and PowerPC versions. For Ubuntu, there's also a server variant that's available on all of these platforms, as well as on Sun Microsystems' UltraSPARC architecture. eWEEK Labs tested the x86 versions of both Ubuntu 6.10 and OpenSUSE 10.2 on a Lenovo ThinkPad T41.

Whether we were running Ubuntu 6.10 or OpenSUSE 10.2, our ThinkPad's suspend and hibernate power management functions worked well. (Suspend sends PCs into a low power mode, and hibernate saves PC state to disk and turns systems off.) What's more, the sound volume, screen brightness, display switching, and Wi-Fi on/off and sleep buttons worked as expected, without requiring any tweaking at all.

Edgy Eft ships with a kernel based on Linux 2.6.17, an upgrade over the 2.6.15-based kernel that powered its predecessor. During this version span, the Linux kernel accrued a list of updates, including improved power management support, ACL (access control list) support for CIFS (Common Internet File System), a driver for Broadcom 43xx-based wireless cards and support for the multicore Niagara series of CPUs from Sun.

OpenSUSE ships with a slightly newer Linux kernel, based on version 2.6.18, which adds improvements for SMP machines and SATA (serial ATA) devices.

For more information on Linux kernel developments for particular versions, check out kernelnewbies.org/LinuxChanges.

Software support

Ubuntu's software management tools and catalog of ready-to-install software packages have, in the past, been the Ubuntu attribute we've most prized. In Edgy Eft, these tools continue on more or less unchanged, and software management remains a particularly bright spot for Ubuntu.

OpenSUSE's software management tools are pretty good. The transition from the classic SUSE software management tool set to the new ZENworks system based on Ximian's Red Carpet is moving along well, but we found it more difficult to browse through available software on OpenSUSE 10.2 than on Ubuntu 6.10. We also found that OpenSUSE 10.2's software tools were noticeably slower than those of Ubuntu 6.10.

For example, we installed the FTP client gFTP on both OpenSUSE and Ubuntu. Since we knew the name of the package we were after, we used the command line. On our OpenSUSE machine, we issued the command "rug install gftp," and the operation took 1 minute and 50 seconds (45 seconds of which was spent waiting for the ZENworks Management Daemon to wake up). On our Ubuntu system, the same operation, which we launched with the command "sudo apt-get install gtfp," took 35 seconds.

In both cases, the time it took to complete the operation included downloading gFTP from the Internet, but we were using the same mirror repository for both systems. (The kernel.org mirror, in San Francisco, hosts both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE mirrors.)

Edgy Eft and OpenSUSE 10.2 each ship with a very good selection of desktop applications, and, for the most part, these applications are integrated smoothly into the system. One negative element we encountered in Edgy, however, was the state of spam filtering support in the Evolution mail client that's included as Ubuntu's default mailer: Out of the box, spam filtering with Evolution did not work.

We did find a how-to on the Ubuntu forums that led us through the process of installing and configuring SpamAssassin and/or Bogofilter to handle spam filtering, but we hope to see this tedious configuration task excised from future Ubuntu releases.

OpenSUSE's Evolution implementation, on the other hand, filtered spam well right off the bat, without need for further configuration.

Click here to read more about Evolution.

Edgy Eft was originally slated to become a more bleeding-edge release than previous Ubuntu versions had been—thus the name. However, the only part of Edgy that lives up to that handle is the system's built-from-scratch replacement for Linux's sysvinit—the program that's responsible for launching all the other programs that constitute a running Linux system.

The Ubuntu replacement, which is installed by default in Edgy, is called Upstart, and is intended to enable Ubuntu systems to better navigate dependencies among the services it's responsible for launching. In our tests, we did notice somewhat shorter startup and shutdown times, which, for now, are the primary advertised benefit of Upstart.

OpenSUSE's GNOME desktop now sports the Windows XP-like Start menu that debuted in last summer's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. The new menu makes it easier to launch recently used applications and documents, but we found that it took longer to navigate to other installed applications than with the traditional GNOME menu (which is still available).

While the new menu does include an integrated search box, search results don't appear immediately within the menu, as is the case with Windows Vista's search-enabled menu. We'd like to see Novell add this functionality to its menu-borne search in future versions.

Advanced Technologies Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

Check out eWEEK.com's for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

Jason has been a member of the Labs staff since 1999, and was previously research and technology coordinator at a French economic development agency. Jason covers the mobile and wireless space, including mobile operating systems such as Palm, Windows CE, Symbian and Linux, as well as the devices that run them. Jason has performed some of the most comprehensive tests published to date of the nascent Bluetooth wireless technology, including interference testing among Bluetooth and other wireless technologies such as 802.11. Jason also provides analysis of the desktop computing area, including Windows, Mac and Linux operating sytems, as well as productivity applications such as Microsoft Office, StarOffice, Lotus Notes, GNOME and KDE. Jason's review of StarOffice received the most hits of any story published on www.eweek.com.

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