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17 April 2009, 08:32

Health Check: openSUSE - Then and now

Almost from its inception SuSE Linux was one of the desktop Linux distro leaders. How will that position be affected now it is so strongly tied to Novell?

By Richard Hillesley

openSUSE 11.1, the latest community edition of Novell SUSE Linux, was released just in time for Christmas, to largely favourable reviews. openSUSE remains one of the market leaders, and features the latest and greatest stable releases of most of the important packages that make a classic GNU/Linux distribution, but it has had its troubles during recent years.

SUSE 11.1 box
There is no easy way to estimate the number of users of any particular distribution, as the software is freely available from download sites, magazine cover discs, OEMs, mirrors, and peer-to-peer sources. One indicator that is often used is the page hit ranking at DistroWatch, and this usually ranks openSUSE within the top two or three. Over the past year DistroWatch shows SUSE in second place with roughly 20 per cent fewer hits than Ubuntu.

SUSE is one of the older Linux distributions, and traditionally one of the more inclusive. Where Ubuntu comes on a live CD, openSUSE fills a DVD, and comes with the option of an extra CD or two, reflecting the philosophy of the older SuSE Linux distributions that came on 40 floppies, or 6 CDs, and contained an endless array of options with an all-encompassing entreaty that implored you to "Have fun". Of course with today's faster internet links the lack of software on the distribution disc or discs is perhaps not so much of a drawback.

These days, Ubuntu, with its careful mix of Debian strengths and ease of use, is by far the most popular Linux distribution, easy to download, easy to configure, easy to update and easy to extend. Ubuntu is barely five years old, and is still the new kid on the block, but has rewritten the rules. Nonetheless, and despite the tribulations and vicissitudes that have been visited on it from above, openSUSE still retains much of the character and traditions of its past.

SuSE and The Meaning of Life

SuSE was founded in Nuremberg, Germany in 1992 by Hubert Mantel, Burchard Steinbild, Roland Dyroff and Thomas Fehr. The earliest versions of SuSE Linux were based on the long defunct SLS Linux from Soft Landing Systems. Later versions were based on Slackware, itself derived from SLS, distributed in sets of 40 floppies, translated into German, with the approval of Patrik Volkerding, the guiding light and sole developer of Slackware.

The first release was branded 4.2, which was said to be a deliberate reference to the number 42 - Douglas Adams' "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" from The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy - which he later described as "a completely ordinary number, a number not just divisible by two but also six and seven. In fact it's the sort of number that you could, without any fear, introduce to your parents."

The SuSE organisation began life as Gesellschaft für Software-und Systementwicklung mbH, which later became Software und System Entwicklung (Software and System Development), from which unlikely root sprang the friendly acronym SuSE. (SuSE became SUSE with a capitalised U sometime after its acquisition by Novell).

SuSE's own distinctive version of Linux came into being with the absorption of Florian LaRoche's Jurix Linux in 1995 and the release of the SuSE installer, YaST, in the following year. YaST, Yet another Set up Tool, was what made SuSE distinctive. In it's time YaST was certainly the most comprehensive and versatile configuration tool among the Linux distributions, and SuSE quickly gained a reputation for being friendly, quick but not too slick, and most definitely solid and reliable. YaST isn't to everybody's taste, but retains it's own unique flavour.

SuSE was liked for its thoroughness and dependability, and became the favoured distribution of Linux in Germany, the country with the fastest uptake of Linux in Europe. By the late 90s SuSE had opened offices in the UK, Italy, the Czech Republic, and the United States, and was second only to Red Hat in popularity among the growing community of Linux users.

During the next few years SuSE, like the other Linux distributions, rode the wave of the dotcom boom, and was adopted, alongside Red Hat and TurboLinux, as one of the favoured Linux distributions for IBM's server range. Linux was red hot property, and Red Hat was floated on the NASDAQ with the remarkable valuation of $6 billion. Yet SuSE missed the opportunity to have its own IPO, and was desperately in need of investment to maintain its workforce and finance its commercial expansion. As a result, SuSE was ripe for takeover.

[pagelink No longer]Next: No longer the company I founded[/pagelink]

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