Review: SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 SP1

If you like virtualization, this is a strong platform from which to start.

Novell announced their first service pack release for SUSE Enterprise Linux Server (SLES), and if you like virtualization, this is a very strong platform from which you can get started.

That's because, for now, Novell is going to be supporting KVM and Xen (plus Microsoft's Hyper-V tech) within SLES 11 SP1 -- and that's not taking into account the recent Novell/VMware partnership that will have VMware distributing SLES as a commoditized operating system offering.

Even industry observers might be forgiven for a little whiplash as they come to the sudden realization that SLES may be the most virtualization-friendly enterprise distro out there, by virtue of Novell's decision to keep supporting Xen (and presumably adding VMware support later), while Red Hat has opted to drop Xen support in favor of KVM as it moves toward Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 6.

While Novell certainly wasn't hiding anything about its virtualization prowess as it got to this point, it also wasn't shouting it from the highest rooftops. That could be a bit deliberate: it's not clear yet if SLES will keep supporting Xen, either, as time progresses. They might do well to consider it: if the virtualization is to become the new operating system platform, then it might make sense to support as many flavors as possible.

As for the actual SP1 release itself, it looks and feels a lot like the main SLES 11 release, but there's enough changes under the hood to make this a very solid platform for applications and development.

Like SLES 11, SLES 11 SP1 sets the Xen virtualization tone right off the bat in the installation. Users are asked to choose one of three server base scenarios:

  • Physical Machine: For installing on a "real" machine or as a guest operating system in any virtual platform.
  • Virtual Machine: "For paravirtualized environments like Xen"
  • Xen Virtualization Host: For installing on a machine that should serve as a Xen host, without a local X server.

Figure 1: Pick your virtualization options

Clearly, even though KVM and Hyper-V support are also present, there's no signs of SLES giving up on Xen anytime soon, particularly when this SP1 release comes with Xen 4.0.0.

Overall, the installation was very thorough, and very fast. Even though there are numerous options for security (including establishing support and certificate management right up front, which I loved), this installation took much less time than installing RHEL 6 on the same machine. I also can appreciate (though I did not use) the AutoYAST feature that enables you to record the installation settings and build cloned machines with almost one-click functionality.

That speed continued when the platform got started. SLES 11 SP1, like most enterprise distros, runs slightly more mature software than found in their community-based distros. So, Fedora and openSUSE might run GNOME 2.30 or thereabouts, but RHEL 6 Beta and SLES 11 SP1 each run GNOME 2.28.

Of course, there's where the similarity ends. In continuing the Novell/SLES tradition, the main menu is actually Slab 0.9.13, which diverges in form and functionality from the typical GNOME menu (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: The Slab GNOME menu

Curiously, in another divergence from current distros, SLES 11 SP1 still includes SaX2 for display management, though this didn't work properly for me, while the GNOME Display Preferences applet worked just fine.

But that's just the surface stuff: SLES 11 SP1 is rigged to be a working server ( isn't even included), so you're not going to be worried about the interface too much.

Here, though, is where strong admin experience is going to be necessary, because just like RHEL, SLES offers no preconfigured stack options (though RHEL does, at least, offer a basic LAMP stack option).

Now, obviously experienced admins won't be deterred by this, since they know full well how to crank out a LAMP, Tomcat, or whatever stack. In fact, this plain-vanilla approach might be preferred since you can custom-build a stack without dealing with default SLES settings that might trip you up. Still, it might be nice for smaller businesses with perhaps a little less Linux experience to have a few stack options available.

Of course, Novell is very much poised to have a real solution for this when it releases SUSE Studio from its beta phase. Using SUSE Studio, any stack or appliance you want to create should be a piece of cake.

In fact, the existence of SUSE Studio may indeed be why SLES 11 SP1 is so plainly configured: give customers who don't need a lot of hand-holding a solid, fast distro they can configure to their heart's content.

And that's what SLES 11 SP1 clearly is, though it has the added bonus of being very virtualization friendly: a big plus in an increasingly cloud-oriented world.

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