SuSE Linux 9.1 is a significant new product for a number of reasons, not least because it’s the first all-new Linux from SuSE since it was acquired by Novell at the end of 2003. It’s also the first based on the 2.6 kernel with, in the Professional edition, support for both AMD64 and Intel Extended Memory 64 processors now included in the box. The Samba SMB server has also been updated to the latest 3.0 release to improve performance and general Windows networking compatibility. The YaST management tool (recently put into the public domain by Novell) has also been given a smart new look and extra functionality.

Of course there’s also the usual clutch of utility updates together with numerous bug fixes and other enhancements throughout the SuSE package - a package which boasts over 2,500 bundled applications of interest to network server and desktop users alike.

SuSE has long been one of the most straightforward Linux distributions to install, the graphical YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) interface making it as easy as Windows, if not easier. That’s assuming your graphics card is supported (and some aren’t as we discovered). Still, the character-based install is similarly straightforward and the software is able to recognise and configure most hardware options, including recent developments such as Serial ATA storage devices. Another plus is that you don’t need a state of the art configuration to get the most out of the package and support for ACPI power management is also built in, which is good news for notebook users.

One drawback is the time it all takes to install, with lots of options to ponder which would be better handled automatically. Additionally, there are all those applications, on five CD-ROMs and two double-sided DVDs, all of which can take up masses of time and disk space. Moreover, they’re not all finished items, with several beta products in the mix, added to which many of the applications provided turn out not to be as useful as the developers might claim.

There are, though, plenty of exceptions and among the applications worth having for server deployment there’s Samba 3.0, complete with the Winbind graphical management tool. Together these make for straightforward SMB file sharing, typically on a Windows network, with support for Active Directory and domain server emulation in this release. Netatalk for Apple Mac file sharing is similarly bundled, along with a NetWare server emulator (Marnsnwe), although this doesn’t support the Novell directory services. NFS file sharing comes as standard and printer sharing in various environments is also well supported.

Version 2 of the ever popular Apache Web server is another standard inclusion plus you can setup your own DHCP, DNS and LDAP servers and build a local SMTP/POP3/IMAP4 e-mail server using various bundled utilities. A firewall is another standard option and although a fair degree of technical knowledge is required to get these all working, unusually for a Linux package, SuSE provides a pair of very fat manuals to point you in the right direction. There’s also around 10MB of electronic documentation and an online update service called YOU (YaST Online Update) to make sure you have the latest versions of everything.

For users looking to deploy Linux on the desktop the SuSE package includes the OpenOffice suite, a kind of Microsoft Office clone for Linux that provides basic word processing, spreadsheet and other productivity tools. Rekall, a graphical database tool, somewhat akin to Access, is also included and although these applications don’t quite measure up to the latest Microsoft equivalents they are all pretty good and you don’t have to shell out any extra cash to get hold of them.

The OpenOffice suite is installed automatically when you choose the default desktop configuration, along with the KDE windows manager and desktop environment. Windows users will find this familiar and easy to get to grips with, although diehard Linux enthusiasts may well prefer the GNOME alternative. Gnome 2.4 is included, and can be upgraded to the latest 2.6 version online. The default browser is Konqueror along with the KMail email client and KOrganiser utilities. Gnome alternatives, including the Mozilla browser and Ximian Evolution email/organiser client, can be installed instead but this has to be done separately. Disappointingly too, there’s no support for the Ximian desktop despite Ximian having being acquired by Novell in August 2003.

That SuSE Linux 9.1 is great value for money is undeniable. Equally undeniable is the fact that the package contains a wealth of useful software of interest to business users and network administrators as well as Linux enthusiasts.

However, it’s still Linux and if you’re new to the operating system you’ll need to set aside plenty of time to get used to the way it works. Support is another consideration as this can be hard to find, especially when you’re in a hurry. And lastly, although it’s better than most, the SuSE package still needs tender loving care in places to make it work the way you want.

OUR VERDICT

Popular with Linux enthusiasts the SuSE Linux package is also a good choice for companies looking for a branded open source server solution. It includes all the latest server utilities, including the Samba 3.0 SMB server and Apache 2.0 Web server. It’s also a great deal cheaper than the Windows equivalent, with lots of other useful software thrown in for free. Some decent documentation is also included but a fair degree of technical expertise is still needed to get everything up and running, which could be a problem for smaller organisations with limited technical resources. The same caveat also applies when considering SuSE Linux as an alternative to Windows on the desktop. The KDE interface is intuitive and very Windows-like and you also get lots of bundled applications which would otherwise bump up the price. Again, though, it’s not quite as easy to maintain and support, calling for a high level of Unix/Linux expertise not always available in companies switching from Windows.