Novell has released a preview version of its upcoming Suse Linux Enterprise distribution, amid a last-minute delay to the software's final release and wider turmoil at Novell.

Suse Linux Enterprise is based on OpenSuse 10.1, Suse's community-oriented distribution. Last week an internal Novell memo revealed that the company was pushing back its release plans for the enterprise edition, due partly to ongoing problems with a new package management system first introduced in OpenSuse.

However, the software is polished enough that the company feels users will be seduced by a test-drive, Novell executives said.

"We're making it easy for everyone to experience for themselves how the best Linux just got better," said Justin Steinman, Linux marketing director at Novell, in a statement. "We firmly believe that those people who take some time to kick the tires will end up wanting to drive it off the lot when it's formally released in the next few weeks."

Downloads are available from Novell's Web site.

The operating system comes pre-installed with a number of mature versions of enterprise-oriented desktop components, such as OpenOffice.org 2.0, the Exchange-compatible mail client Evolution 2.6, Firefox 1.504, the messaging client GAIM 1.5 and Beagle desktop search.

Like Windows Vista, Suse Linux Enterprise is placing a certain emphasis on improvements to the graphical user experience, with 3D virtual desktops, translucency and the like. By default the system uses Gnome 2.12, the OpenGL-based X Server Xgl and compiz, but KDE 3.5 remains an option - a reversal of an earlier plan to ditch KDE, which failed in the face of user criticism.

Server features include an integrated version of Xen 3.0, the increasingly popular, open-source virtualisation system, which supports Intel's Virtualization Technology hardware.

The preview edition, available on CD images, will only support x86 and x86-64 architectures, though the final version will add several more to the list. The desktop version will sell for about $50, with various subscription pricing plans for the server edition.

Novell is planning to finalise Suse Linux Enterprise at the end of this month and ship it to customers in mid-July.

OpenSuse 10.1 introduced a new package management system using RPM for handling program packages, an attempt to combine elements of the old Suse Yast2 system and Ximian Red Carpet. The system has continued to cause problems, however - not unlike some of Novell's other attempts to bring together elements of Suse and Ximian, both acquired at around the same time.

Friction between the cultures of the two acquired companies are understood to have been partly behind several Suse executive and engineering departures. The unpopular, aborted decision to scrap KDE in favour of Gnome appears to have been influenced by the fact that Ximian's technology is Gnome-based, according to industry observers.

Novell hasn't reinvented itself as the Linux-fuelled open source giant it once hoped, and disappointing financial results from its Linux business contributed to the decision to part ways with chief executive Jack Messman, according to analysts. Ron Hovsepian replaced Messman last week.