March 26, 2009, 3:29 PM — There are lots of Linux distros being touted as great desktop operating systems for PCs. However, there's only one that I can wholeheartedly recommend to business owners as a Windows replacement: Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11 (SLED).
SLED 11, which was released on March 24, stands above its competitors because it works and plays well with existing Windows business networks, data files and application servers. You can, of course, add this functionality to other Linux distributions -- if you're willing to do it manually. SLED gives you pretty much the full deal out of the box.
This new desktop is based on openSUSE 11.1. If you've already used openSUSE, you might think at first glance that SLED 11 is little more than openSUSE with a US$120 annual service contract. It's more than that, though. Here's what I found in my recent run with it.
SLED 11 is built on Version 2.6.27 of the Linux kernel. You get two choices for a desktop: GNOME v. 2.24.1 or KDE v. 4.1.3. (I'm sorry to say that KDE 3.5.10, my preferred desktop, is no longer a default selection; the new, excellent KDE 4.2.1 also isn't available.)
For the default file system, SLED 11 is now using the rock-solid ext3 instead of ReiserFS. ReiserFS will, however, still be supported.
A ride on SLED
I installed SLED 11 on a Dell Inspiron 530S, a low-end computer that retails for approximately $450. It's powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus, along with 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive and an integrated Intel 3100 GMA chip set. I also ran the operating system on a Lenovo ThinkPad R61 with a 2.2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500, 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive.
Installation was a snap. I inserted the DVD and told the install program to do its stuff; the process was over in a few minutes.
A Novell representative told me that the company is in talks with Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo to get SLED 11 pre-installed but, as of mid-March, no deal was in place. I did receive a review unit from Novell, an HP EliteBook 2530p with SLED 11 pre-installed, but the notebook still had a Vista Business sticker on it (HP's Web site currently offers either Vista or FreeDOS on that model).
Hopefully, that deal will go through, because SLED ran flawlessly on all three PCs. It had no trouble working with a variety of Wi-Fi and graphics cards, or with the EliteBook's un2400 3G EV-DO/HSPA Mobile Broadband Module. If only Windows Vista were as compatible with today's hardware.
The desktop look depends, of course, on which desktop you opt for: GNOME or KDE. I chose GNOME for most of my testing, and also tried out the KDE interface. But no matter which interface I used, I couldn't help but notice that the desktop organization was a bit messy.
For example, there were too many applications in too many places. Even I, who have used SUSE Linux for years, had occasional trouble locating the right app. And do we really need three separate panels for administration -- Control Center, Application Browser and YaST2? How about one panel with three tabs?
Working with Windows
Where SLED really shines is in its interoperability with the Windows and Microsoft Office business environment. Linux and Mac fans may snicker at Microsoft's endless software missteps, but the truth is that most offices rely on Microsoft Office formats for documents, Exchange for e-mail and groupware services, and Active Directory for network management. With SLED, however, you can have all that, along with improved Linux security and stability.
Novell's customized version of the OpenOffice 3.0 office suite comes ready and able not just to handle the older Office formats, but Office 2007's Open XML formats as well. While I think everyone will eventually use the true open document standard, Open Document Format (ODF), being able to read and write to Open XML is a plus.
The excuse I hear most often from offices that don't want to leave Windows and Microsoft Office behind is that they can't do without Exchange and the Outlook e-mail client. Well, now you can keep Exchange and use it with the far superior (not to mention essentially malware-proof) Evolution e-mail/groupware client.
If there were only a good port of Evolution to Windows, I'd say business users could finally kick the Outlook habit once and for all.
The latest version of Evolution, from GNOME 2.26, is included in SLED 11. It works hand-in-glove with Exchange's native protocol, MAPI (Messaging Application Programming Interface), and you can import Outlook PST files directly to Evolution. Now, if there were only a good port of Evolution to Windows, I'd say business users could finally kick the Outlook habit once and for all.
Novell has also continued to make SLED more Active Directory-friendly. You could always get Linux and Samba to work with a Windows server-centric network, but more often than not it required an experienced network administrator to get it to operate perfectly. Now it's pretty much just a matter of entering your Active Directory or domain credentials into the appropriate fields and you're in.
It took me less than a minute per PC to register them with my Active Directory and NT/Samba style domains. It was, I must add, worlds easier than getting a Vista system properly logged into my Windows network.
SLED doesn't just include compatibility with the work side of Windows. It also includes access to the fun side as well. For example, SLED incorporates Moonlight, which gives you access to Microsoft Silverlight media content, and Moonshine, which lets you view and listen to Windows Media Video and Windows Media Audio files. On top of this, SLED includes Adobe Flash and support for AAC and MP3 audio.
SLED, with all of its Microsoft integration, isn't a Linux for free software purists. But it is a desktop Linux distro that makes a fine drop-in replacement for Windows at most offices.
Why would you want to do that? Because while there are some things that Windows users take for granted, such as being locked into Microsoft's document formats, there are security threats, such as Conflicker, that could destroy a business. If you want Windows compatibility, but you'd prefer a cheaper and more stable and secure alternative, then SLED 11 is the desktop operating system for you.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.