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In the ’80s and most of the ’90s, Novell ruled the roost for PC network operating systems. In fact, a term was coined, NOS (network operating system) to describe Novell’s flagship product. But the Redmond juggernaut eventually overcame Novell’s efforts. Novell shops still exist, but they’re getting to be few and far between.

As Microsoft consolidated its gain in servers, Novell’s Linux began to make inroads on what had seemed to be secure territory. Even larger companies like IBM and HP offer Linux-based servers today. Meanwhile, Novell’s purchase of Suse and Ximian, both leading Linux vendors, has opened up new doors for the company. With the release of Novell Linux Desktop (NLD), Novell’s acquisitions have already begun bearing fruit. We take a closer look at NLD in this review and we consider whether or not it has a place on the desktops of non-corporate users.

Installing NLD

If you’ve ever installed Suse Linux, you should have no problem with NLD since it uses the Yast installer. We had almost no problems with our install. It was pretty much a breeze considering how many times we’ve installed Suse in the past. We installed onto a system that already had Windows installed, opting to test a dual-boot configuration.

During the install we installed some additional software and use Gnome as our default desktop (though we also installed KDE). Don’t worry if you’re new to Linux, the Yast installer used by NLD is about as easy as installing Windows XP. Continued…

You know that you’re in Novell land when you first arrive at your desktop. The big “N” is everywhere, and you simply can’t miss it. Clicking “N” in the task bar lets you access menus the way clicking “Start” does in Windows. The menus are well organized, and it’s easy to find the type of program you are looking for to access individual programs.

If you’ve used Windows, Gnome, or KDE before, you aren’t going to have problems navigating the Novell desktop. If you currently use Gnome or KDE for your Linux desktop, you’ll still have no problems. NLD uses Gnome 2.6 and KDE 3.2.1. Both desktops, though branded by Novell, are pretty much the usual in terms of how they function.

There are some lightweight window managers available as well. So if Gnome and KDE don’t float your boat, you can also opt to choose the Motif Window Manager, the Tab Window Manager, or FVWM. Any of these will work well, particularly on older/slower systems with less memory.

We were pleased to be able to access our Windows partition by clicking on the “My Computer” icon and then finding the C: icon. And we were also easily able to connect to our shared folder on our Windows XP by clicking the Network Browsing icon, then choosing the Windows Network. Our CD and DVD drives were also mounted automatically for us.

Novell has done a very good job in making sure that NLD provides much of the necessary basic networking and disk functionality. However, we were disappointed to discover that there is still no way to create a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection in NLD (more on this later). This is a curious omission for what’s supposed to be a corporate Linux desktop distro. Continued…

NLD comes with a decent selection of software–but not nearly as much as Suse 9.2 Professional. You can pick additional packages during the installation, so what you end up with depends on what you choose at install time. Here’s a list of what we had available on our desktop:

  • Firefox
  • Evolution
  • GAIM
  • Citrix ICA Client
  • Red Carpet
  • Epiphany
  • Mozilla
  • Konqueror
  • Gimp
  • RealPlayer 10

There’s just enough software available for the most common computing tasks, but not so much that the average user would feel overwhelmed by choices. We feel that NLD is closer to Suse Personal in that sense than it is to Suse 9.2 Professional. If you’re a software junkie and you can’t get enough choices, NLD might not be what you’re looking for. You’d do better with Suse Professional for the largest selection of software possible.

Managing NLD

NLD comes with Ximian’s Red Carpet, which made it easy to update our system. Yast 2 is also available in the Administrator settings (with Novell branding on it of course). Using Yast, you can add/remove software, see your Hardware, System, Network Devices, Network Services, Security, and Users, as well as Miscellaneous settings. Between Red Carpet and Yast, managing NLD is pretty much a breeze. Continued…

As we mentioned earlier, there is no VPN Wizard built into NLD. This is basic functionality that belongs in every Linux distribution but particularly in one aimed at the corporate desktop. How are laptop users who work from home supposed to connect to their corporate networks via VPN? We hope that Novell will build a counterpart to the Windows VPN Wizard that exists in Windows XP. It’s long past time for Linux to have this kind of functionality and we’re getting very tired of having to keep asking for it. Get it done, developers!

Unlike certain other Linux distributions, there’s nothing included in NLD that will let you run Windows applications. If you want to run Windows applications you’ll need to grab VMWare, Crossover Office, Win4Lin, or Wine and install them yourself. While we always prefer running native Linux applications to running Windows apps, we do recognize that some folks—particularly in corporate offices—simply must have certain kinds of Windows applications. At the very least, Novell would do well to bundle Crossover Office with NLD at some point; it would give NLD users the ability to run a number of helpful Windows applications.

Our overall impressions of NLD are positive. Although very new, it’s based on a solid distribution (Suse), provides most of what is necessary for corporate desktops, and could, if necessary, be used by non-corporate users who just want a solid distribution for their personal use. The major issue for this distro, given that it’s targeting business desktops, is to add easy VPN support as soon as possible.

Although we liked NLD, we won’t be using it on our own systems. There’s just nothing in it that we can’t get from Ubuntu, Suse, or Libranet. If you’re curious about NLD, we recommend that you download the evaluation version and make up your own mind.

Novell Linux Desktop 9
Includes Red Hat & Yast2 management tools—uses Yast as the installer; comes with Citrix ICA Client.
Not quite as much software as Suse Professional; still lacks built-in VPN client.
NLD provides a solid corporate desktop based on the Suse Linux distribution.