GNU Linux Revisited: OpenSUSE 11.1

My colleague Ed Dulaney introduced me to Linux years ago with the Mandrake (now Mandriva) distribution. I liked it, but in time, I moved over to SUSE 9.0 and fell in love.

SUSE is now up to the 11.1 release (with 11.2 in beta) and the improvements continue. Ironically, this time I had trouble with my home desktop computer — more on this in a moment — but my company laptop upgraded easily and with flying colors.

Given that laptops have long been Linux's bane, I was impressed and pleased. The OpenSUSE installer found and configured my hardware with only one minor hitch: I had to select a different printer driver to get network printing to function. But most impressive was the fact that wireless networking now works perfectly under SUSE!

Sure, it's a comment on Linux that this — something that has been taken for granted in Windows for many years — is noteworthy. But the fact that the latest distributions are able to do wireless networking is encouraging. I'd like to see more people use GNU/Linux software for several reasons. The biggest, if we're talking business, can be boiled down to a single word: security.

Linux is far more secure than Windows, especially for Web browsing and e-mail. It's a clone of Unix, which was designed for large enterprise systems and was then scaled down to personal computers. Big companies and universities have used the "Unices" (or "Nix," if you're cool) for years and the idea of limited, specific per-user privileges is taken for granted. This was built into Linux from the ground up: If I'm not supposed to look at your files, I can't. I can't even browse into your home folder unless the system administrator (the "root") has specifically given me that permission.

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Switchable desktops: one with the OpenOffice.org word processor and the other with the Thunderbird mail client.
Windows, on the other hand, has its legacy in personal computers and was scaled up for the enterprise. The goal there has always been ease of use, often at the expense of security. The devil is in the defaults: by default, a single-user Windows system is typically set up to allow that user to do most anything (after all, that way, the PC vendor doesn't have to field hundreds of support calls from people who just want to plug in the new widget they bought from the local clone shop!).

While OpenSUSE has gone to great lengths to make Linux easier to install and use, they haven't compromised on security. When you install it, you'll be asked for a root password. Don't forget it! You'll need it to do anything that affects the entire system, such as installing new hardware.

That's annoying at first, especially to a long-time Windows user. But after a while, it becomes second nature to type in the root password when asked. At some point, it will dawn on you that a virus or worm would also need that password to do anything really bad to your system. You'll feel a lot safer once you realize that, believe me.

Here's a suggestion and all of this can be done with OpenSUSE using an intuitive, point-and-click interface: Create a special, limited user just for browsing new Web sites. You then protect your normal home directory so that only you can access it. When you want to browse a potentially unsafe Web site, you simply start a new session as that limited user. If you happen onto a malicious Web page, it will be limited to trashing that one directory (which can easily be deleted and recreated). Once you know that a Web site can be trusted, you log back in under your normal user name and add it to your bookmarks there.

Unfortunately, the OpenSUSE installation didn't go so well on my home computer, which has a 64-bit AMD processor with NVidia graphics. It seemed OK at first, but as soon as SUSE updated itself with the latest security patches, the video stopped working. The issue is apparently the proprietary drivers supplied by NVidia and to be fair, these types of problems aren't limited to Linux. Windows users are sometimes perplexed when trying to get 64-bit and 32-bit software to play nicely together as well. I've backed off to Suse 10.3 at home.



He's sold

All in all, I am still 100 percent sold on OpenSUSE. Everything I need or want to do, with a few specific exceptions (such as income tax software), I can do under Linux now.

For those rare occasions when I need a Windows-only program, I can either try to run it under OpenSUSE with the Windows emulator Wine, or I can log into Windows. Like most modern Linux distributions, OpenSUSE can install itself onto an existing Windows systems so that you can dual-boot. When you restart your machine, a little menu will ask whether to start Windows or Linux.

You have been warned: Yes, there's a learning curve, but once you've used it for a while, don't be surprised to discover that you love SUSE.

I actually prefer their KDE desktop to Windows. It's much more cleanly laid out, with features that even Windows Vista has yet to incorporate — such as multiple desktops, which is one of those things that you can't live without once you've gotten used to it.

The attached image shows two different desktops, each running at the same time, one with Thunderbird, my mail program, and the other with OpenOffice, which I'm using to edit this article. I can alternate between the two with a simple mouse click.

The behavior of the desktop is superior to that of Microsoft's product, too. If you've ever switched on a Windows machine, in a hurry, trying to get to an important file, you know how frustrating it is to play "whack a mole" with the half-dozen "please update" and "you have unused icons" boxes that will pop up.

Plus, speaking of updates, SUSE handles all of this for you in an orderly manner. You don't have different programs popping up windows at random while you're trying to get work done. You almost never have to restart after updating, either (the exception is if you upgrade the kernel — the core operating system — itself).

If you haven't tried OpenSUSE yet, you don't know what you're missing. I do have one recommendation: KDE 4 has bugs. I strongly recommend that you check "KDE 3.5" during installation; stay away from the latest version of KDE. But best of all, it's free! You can download the complete operating environment with desktop software from www.opensuse.org. If you don't have a high-speed Internet connection, you can also order DVDs in a boxed kit from that same Web site. Either way, you need to try it.

Stephen M. Poole, CBRE-AMD, CBNT, is market chief engineer for Crawford Broadcasting in Birmingham, Ala. This article is expanded and updated from one that appeared in the company's Local Oscillator newsletter.



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