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SLED 10 SP1: a great Linux desktop gets better

Sometimes, a service pack comes along that really makes a big difference. Take NT. Before SP3, it was garbage; afterwards Microsoft had its first server operating system that was worth anything. XP before SP2 was so-so, but after SP2, it became Microsoft’s best desktop operating system ever (sorry, Vista).

And, now, with its SP1 for SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop), Novell has given an already excellent business desktop a real kick in the pants.

To see what it could do I installed SP1 on both of my SLED systems. The first, an older system, was a generic box with a 2.8 GHz Pentium IV, one GB of RAM, and an Ultra ATA/100, 60 GB hard drive.

My newer, and these days my main Linux desktop box, is an HP A6040N Pavilion Desktop PC. This PC is powered by a 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6320 dual-core processor. It has 2 GB of RAM and 320 GB of SATA hard drive. For graphics, I used the installed, but unimpressive, integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 video/graphics card, which has 32 MB of its own memory and “borrows” 224 MB of system memory for the rest of its graphics power.

There is no “download” of SLED 10 SP1. If you’re new to SLED, you’ll probably install it from either a DVD or from multiple CDs. If you’re going to update an existing SLED installation, you can do it by means of YaST, zmd, or rug. For full details see Novell’s page entitled, “How to update SLES/SLED.”

First impressions

To start with what you’ll notice at the keyboard, SP1 has a much improved version of Compiz, the 3D compositing engine. Its performance is much better; plus, you can now use Compiz with dual-head monitor configurations. You can do this with either cloning or Xinerama. Of the two, I much prefer Xinerama — but your screenage may vary.

No one is going to choose to run Compiz, or any other advanced graphics, on a system with integrated graphics. But, you know what? You could if you wanted to. Even on these systems’ less than sterling graphic engines, Compiz was quite functional.

SLED 10 SP1 also has an improved main menu. This makes it easier to access common resources. If you don’t like it, you can change it with the Alacarte menu editor. This GNOME 2.16 menu editor enables users to customize system menus.

Application enhancements

But the real improvement for desktop users with SLED 10 SP1 isn’t really in the desktop itself. IOt’s in the included desktop applications.

This edition of SLED comes with such well known programs as Firefox 2.0, Adobe Flash 9, and Evolution 2.6. It also includes lesser-known — but still valuable — programs such as the Beagle desktop Indexer and search engine; the Helix Banshee 0.12.0 audio player and library application, which includes iPod support; F-Spot 0.3.5, a feature-rich photo management application; and Ekiga 2.0.5, an open-source VoIP and video application.

Ekiga, by the way, uses both the H.323 video and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) audio protocols. It supports a number of audio and video codecs and is interoperable with other SIP-compliant clients and servers such as the open-source PBX Asterisk project. Novell also states that support is coming for Microsoft NetMeeting.

By far, the most important of these program improvements, from where I sit, are those in Novell’s 2.1.7. This version boasts greatly improved compatibility with Microsoft Office formats. It does extremely well in my tests with older Microsoft Office formats, and provides quite good compatibility between the Open Document Format (ODF) and Microsoft Office 2007’s Open XML formats. It does best with translating word processing documents from Open XML to ODF and back again. Novell will also be adding support for Open XML’s Excel and PowerPoint (xlsx and pptx) files later this year.

This version also includes support for Visual Basic macros, Office embedded objects, and Excel functions. Even the look of translated documents, thanks to the additional fonts Novell has licensed from AGFA, are closer now to those of a Microsoft Office document. And, unlike any version of Microsoft Office, with OpenOffice, you can also save documents, spreadsheets, and presentations as Adobe PDF (portable document format) files.

While personally, I don’t need high-end translations from Office to OpenOffice formats and vice-versa, I can see how any company using both Linux and Windows desktops or migrating from Windows to Linux would find these translation features invaluable.

This version of OpenOffice also comes with improved integration with Evolution, SLED’s default mail and groupware application. Since for my money, Evolution is the best email program on the planet, this is great news. For example, you can send documents as email and perform mail merges using the Evolution address book as your address data source.

Last, but by no means least, you can also open and save documents from any storage device your SLED can access. In the past, it could be troublesome at times opening, say, a Word document that was located on a Windows Server 2003 hard drive that you were accessing over the network as a Samba share. Now, there’s no fuss or muss. You open the file, make the changes, save it, and that’s it.

This is one of those small changes that can make a big difference. With it, users can focus on creating their documents or spreadsheets and not worrying over taking an extra step or two to make sure it’s saved properly regardless of where it’s located on the network.

Other improvements

Another real plus for any laptop road warrior is that SLED SP1 now includes home directory and partition encryption. The tools that do this job are part of util-linux-crypt. To make encryption easy to use, SLED 10 SP1 also includes cryptconfig. While other operating systems includes this functionality, they often don’t include it as part of the base package. Microsoft Vista, for example, only includes it in its Ultimate edition or if your company has subscribed to software assurance, in which case you’ll get it in the Enterprise-level edition. Since losing laptops with important information happens all the time, I think it’s a must for business users to have encrypted hard drives on their laptops.

There are also some really excellent improvements in SLED 10 SP1 for system administrators. Continuing on with security, System administrators can now bar SLED users from unlimited access to system functionality with the desktop lockdown tool, Sabayon. Don’t want to let your users use Banshee to listen to ESPN radio? With Sabayon, you can block them from using the application.

The desktop also features tighter integration with Novell’s ZENworks Linux Management. With this set of tools, you can mirror patches and deploy SLED and software updates. You can also use it enforce desktop lockdown policies both on groups and individuals from a centralized station.

SLED 10 also supports not only eDirectory and LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) authentication SP1 also adds support for AD (Active Directory) online and offline authentication.

Integrating Windows and Linux desktops on a hybrid NT domain, LDAP and AD network like my own can be tricky even for an old network pro like myself. SLED is the first desktop from a Linux vendor or anyone else that I’ve found I could easily drop in and hook into a variety of network directories and services.

While there are few businesses that use network topologies as complicated as mine, I know for a fact that many businesses using Windows and Linux desktops are struggling with integrating both systems into their network infrastructure. SLED makes it easy.

There’s room for argument over which Linux desktop is the best. When it comes to integrating a Linux desktop into an already existing Windows-based office, though, there’s not even a discussion. SLED 10 SP1 is by far the best Linux business desktop around.

Last, but never least, at a price of $50 per desktop, which includes the OpenOffice productivity suite, it makes far more financial sense then Microsoft’s Vista Business edition for a list price of $299 and then Microsoft Office Professional 2006 for $499.95.

Of course, Microsoft and its retailers offer many ways to drive these prices down — but, lower than Novell with its SLED offering? I can’t see it. And, even if they did, when you count in Linux’s built-in security and stability, I think SLED is the clear winner. For business users, I think in all seriousness, SLED is simply the best business desktop around, period.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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