Novell's SLES 10 preview: Not your father's Suse

New default choices, virtualization package bode well for SLES 10 beta

It appears that there’s been lots of Linux activity in Utah lately: Novell’s SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) 10 is a much different distribution than SLES 9, from stem to stern.

Judging by the UI of the preview version I tested, it appears that part of Novell’s master plan involves borrowing heavily from Apple. From the first boot of the installation CD to the first true boot of an installed server, it’s clear that the layout and design of the GUI takes a page from Mac OS X, and does it well.

Swooping visuals aside, there are lots of changes behind the scenes. The installer is still based on YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool), but its appearance and function are more fluid, and the initial hardware detection code has been improved, making the GUI installer available on more hardware combinations.

Several default installation choices have been changed as well, not the least of which is that the default desktop choice is now Gnome rather than KDE. Novell’s acquisition of Ximian and the Ximian Desktop has finally pushed KDE to the side, which is sure to be a point of contention among hard-line Suse users. A fully configured firewall is also now a default, which wasn’t the case with SLES 9.

Installation revealed a much improved package management system and an online update mechanism that is less apt to throw up a flurry of bizarre dependency problems — and usually fail to handle any updates at all without help. I did run into some unexplained errors during a vanilla installation of SLES 10, specifically with the YaST2 autocloning feature, but that might be due to the prerelease nature of the code. Another interesting back-end change is the deprecation of JFS (journaling filesystem) for ReiserFS 3. Novell claims that this will be the last release of SLES to support JFS by default.

SLES 10 is plastered with Novell’s touch. It ships with Novell AppArmor, which is Novell’s reaction to Red Hat Enterprise SELinux. AppArmor and SELinux function in similar ways; they provide a system watchdog that is configured with known boundaries around individual applications and services, such as Apache and Samba, and will prevent these applications from treading outside their known safe space. This greatly reduces the risk of individual application exploits from interfering with the operating system at large.

Although both SELinux and AppArmor use the Linux Security Module interface, which provides the hooks necessary to handle application security at the kernel level, the biggest difference here is the management tools. SELinux is very complete but is hard to manage due to the limited front-end tools. Novell’s AppArmor, however, comes with a snazzy, YaST-integrated GUI interface to ease the admin burden and provide reports on application behavior.

Another large part of SLES 10 is the XEN 3.0 virtualization package. Much as Red Hat introduced XEN integration in Fedora Core 5, SLES 10 brings it to the production side of the house, offering not only a full Linux server base but also the capability for hosting virtual servers via XEN. (I’m sure Red Hat will follow suit in its next release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.) A basic installation of SLES 10 offers both kernels at boot time — a standard 2.6.16-based kernel and a 2.6.16 kernel with the XEN hooks compiled in. XEN support is available on both the x86 and x86_64 releases.

All of the SLES server packages got a refresh in Version 10, with some apps jumping several major releases from their SLES 9 incarnations. Apache has been bumped to v2.2, along with Cyrus IMAP mail services. MySQL 5.0, PostgreSQL v8.1, and PHP 5.1 are all there, and the base toolchain includes GCC 4.1.0 and glibc 2.4. On the front end, Gnome comes in at Version 2.12, and KDE is v3.5.1.

Speaking of the front end, the default desktop could not have changed more. Aside from the obvious changes wrought from the switch from KDE to Gnome, the desktop layout has changed completely. Gone is the throat-lozenge-with-a-red-N applications menu, along with nearly all of SLES 9’s taskbar clutter. Now the Computer menu in the bottom left is the only menu present.

The resulting Computer menu options are very sparse. This menu acts much like the Start menu in Windows XP, providing a quick list of recently used applications with a few icons for easy access to system resources and the Control Center. To find applications that aren’t listed in this top-level menu, you must click a button that closes the menu and brings up an application browser that allows you to page through installed applications, or search via a small text search field. It’s an interesting way of presenting this information; I’m not entirely sure I like it yet, as it seems to add unnecessary steps to what should be a simple process.

Suse always enjoyed much greater adoption in European markets but had relatively little penetration in the United States. Novell’s goal has been to bolster its U.S. base while retaining its existing Suse base. Some of the changes in SLES 10 will certainly help with the former, but conversely, those changes may alienate the latter. It’s still an uphill battle for Novell, but SLES 10 appears to be a solid and timely salvo at reducing Red Hat’s enterprise gains.