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So long OpenSUSE

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I finally found the time to decommission my last OpenSUSE installation. And believe me it wasn’t before trying to save it.

It was a 11.1 system on my parent’s desktop with Internet connectivity via a wireless card. The hardware is nothing flash – recently modern with nvidia graphics.

The system was first installed as version 11.0 and I successfully upgraded it online to 11.1 with zypper. There was no reason for me to believe it would fail further online distribution upgrades so after backing up the home directory (to DVD and USB key) I attempted to go to version 11.2. As a failsafe I also downloaded the latest version (11.4) on DVD in the event I would need to upgrade it from optical media.

Why upgrade at all? Well, in addition to the fact that 11.1 is no longer supported with package updates, that version also had problems with digital camera support. It would mount okay, but manual intervention was required to view photos in Nautilus.

So the story goes:

11.1 to 11.2

Packages downloaded and installed okay. System booted and wireless network was okay. The problem? There was a problem somewhere among X, Compiz and GNOME. The desktop would “start” and appear, but not all the icons would load and I couldn’t start any windows/apps. Not good. After some time trying to fix X and restarting gnome-session, gdm, etc without success, I was left with little other options than to try to move to the newer version, 11.3. As it happens, 11.2 is just out of support as well.

11.2 to 11.3

Again, the packages downloaded and installed fine and the distro seemed to successfully upgrade to 11.3, but unfortunately no luck. The GUI was still non-functional. With my patience rapidly wearing thin I dusted off the 11.4 DVD and had one last throw of the dice.

11.3 to 11.4

This was done the old-fashioned way where the packages are already on the DVD and installed directly. Surely this would safe the system and bring it to a working state? Things started out well, X and wireless networking were detected by the installation system and the packages were installed without any apparent issues. Unfortunately it just wasn’t to be. After the installation and reboot the display was still non-functional and as an added bonus wireless networking no longer worked. How can the display and networking work during the installation process and then manage to fail when the system is installed? Go figure.

So at the end of the day I went from a working system and upgraded my way to a broken mess. With my patience well and truly worn out I blew OpenSUSE away with Kubuntu Natty. Why Kubuntu as so much complaining about the six monthly upgrade-and-break cycle? It was mainly due to time. I actually had a Chakra CD handy, but knowing the Kubuntu installation was likely to be shorter I proceeded with that. I can always re-image it again in six months time.

The result? Kubuntu setup the display, wireless networking with ease and now I have a fresh KDE desktop with all the main desktop apps. I also got the printer to work with a little poking, but that’s the topic of another blog.

I must say I was very impressed with the Kubuntu installation process and given its roots in Debian I like to think online upgrades are far less likely to result in a complete system breakdown a la OpenSUSE.

Of course, this is an Ubuntu distro we’re talking about here so something simple had to be a miss. When I inserted the DVD with the home backup on it the system failed to detect it and I had to mount it manually. I’m happy to report that in Launchpad, but I remain perplexed as to how so much usability engineering can go into Kubuntu yet something as basic as inserting a data DVD requires manual intervention.

Where to now for OpenSUSE?

While it’s unlikely I’ll use OpenSUSE again anytime soon, I think it’s a good distribution that seems to have lost its way in recent years. Okay, there was a chance that a fresh installation from the 11.4 DVD may have been fine but by that stage I wasn’t willing to give it another chance.

The biggest problem I can see is it’s quite a complex distro with a lot of software options and specific management tools – from YaST to Zypper. What can it do to remain relevant amid all the uncertainty with its corporate overlords? Here are my ideas:

  • Drop GNOME/Mono: OpenSUSE was always a KDE/Qt-centric distro before it was acquired by Novell. It should just pick one desktop and run with it. Now the core Mono developers have left Attachmate and started their own company the time is right to close the chapter on GNOME and concentrate on KDE. Just provide the “killer” GTK+ apps like Inkscape, et al.
  • Focus on online updates: OpenSUSE recently introduced tumbleweed as a way of providing a rolling release cycle if people desired it. Whether its a timed or rolling release cycle is very much arbitrary. What is important is the system actually upgrade and provide more features with a newer version, not provide a bunch of regressions. Test, test and test again.
  • Reduce corporate infrastructure dependence: with the moving and shaking that’s happened since the Novell acquisition, the wider OpenSUSE community should be looking to provide its own development and online support services and wean itself off the “N” wherever that may be. Better to think about that now, not after divisions get closed and people are made redundant. Promote donations to raise funding if need be.

It’s always going to be tenuous relationship between commercial Linux vendors and the wider community, which is why I prefer community-oriented distributions. Canonical dropping GNOME for Unity is a classic example of how the community has little or no say over the direction of a commercially-backed Linux distribution. In the case of OpenSUSE’s desktop, the community actually voted to return KDE as the default, something that didn’t go down too well at Novell given how much the company had sunk into Mono development.

With the three main Linux distributions (OpenSUSE, Ubuntu and Fedora) all heavily backed by commercial vendors what’s your choice of community-driven desktop? Mine is Chakra GNU/Linux right now. And it’s likely to stay that way.

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