Getting to Know SuSE Linux

An Interview with SuSE CTO Dirk Hohndel

By Jeffrey Carl

 

SuSE Linux is often referred to as “the European Red Hat,” since SuSE enjoys the kind of market domination there that Red Hat does in the U.S. For the record, SuSE is pronounced “SUE-zuh,” and the name was a catchy little acronym for the rather awkward “Gesellschaft für Software und Systementwicklung mbH.” A reader survey by a German Linux magazine found SuSE with about 75 percent market share to Red Hat’s 11 percent and Debian’s 8.5 percent. Although I wasn’t able to find figures, it’s also safe to say that SuSE enjoys a commanding market share in many other areas outside the U.S. as well.

 

A major factor cited for this is the fact that SuSE’s distribution includes six CDs with more than 1500 extra software packages to install. While many U.S. users with broadband connections don’t particularly care, it’s an important factor for users (especially for international users) who have slow connections, pay per-minute charges for their bandwidth or otherwise find it inconvenient to spend large amounts of time downloading new software.

 

Advantages frequently cited by SuSE users aside from the copious CD software collection include SaX, an excellent X Windows configuration tool; and YaST, SuSE’s LinuxConf-like administration tool. While these features are a favorite for some users, others complain that the enormous number of available applications in the install CDs makes installation cumbersome. And YaST, like LinuxConf, seems very much to be a “love it or hate it” application, with opinions varying widely by personal preferences.

 

SuSE distributions tend to be a little less “cutting-edge” than Red Hat’s, lagging a couple months behind with the “latest and greatest,” but as a result tending to have fewer bugs. Whether this tradeoff is acceptable is up to you; it should be noted that SuSE acquitted itself fairly well in the recent Security Portal Linux Distribution Security Report (http://www.securityportal.com/cover/coverstory20000724.html).

 

The current version of SuSE for x86 hardware (as of this writing) is 7.0. SuSE recently released a well-reviewed version of their 6.4 distribution for PowerPC-based Macintoshes, which includes the MOL (Mac on Linux) emulator among other goodies. To find out more, I asked SuSE Chief Technical Officer Dirk Hohndel and press representative Xenia von Wedel:

 

Carl: Could you give me a brief history of SuSE?

 

Hohndel: In 1992, the four founders ran into the (back then largely unknown) Linux operating system (or more precisely, the beginnings thereof). They quickly saw the need for Linux on "off-line media", as Internet connections were not commonplace in Germany back then (and still are quite expensive). More importantly, a physical distribution made it easier to bundle documentation and support, and of course to make SuSE’s own developments for installation and configuration available as part of the package. Soon SuSE Linux became the standard Linux OS in Europe, and in the past few years SuSE has been quite successful outside Europe as well (less because of a strong marketing arm, but more due to its focus on sound technology and good engineering).

 

Von Wedel: SuSE Linux AG, headquartered in Germany, and SuSE Inc., based in Oakland, CA, are privately held companies focused entirely on supporting the Linux community, Open Source development and the GNU General Public License. With a workforce of over 450 people worldwide, SuSE has offices all over Europe, Venezuela and in the US. More than 50,000 business customers use SuSE Linux worldwide due to its stability and high quality.

 

SuSE received the “Show Favorites” award at LinuxWorld Expo in February 2000 and March 1999. SuSE contributes considerably to Linux development projects such as the Linux kernel, glibc, XFree86TM, KDE, ISDN4Linux, ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture) and USB (Universal Serial Bus). Additional information about SuSE can be found at http://www.suse.com.

 

Carl: What is included with the newest release of SuSE?

 

Hohndel: Linux kernel 2.2.17/PRE (2.2.16 plus the relevant patches for it) with enhanced raw device support and 4 GB main memory addressing, full USB support and ReiserFS XFree86 4.0 and SaX 2, the graphical installation tool for XFree86 4

 

SuSE Linux Professional includes more than 1500 apps such as StarOffice 5.2; Acrobat Reader; Samba 2.0.7; Apache 1.3.12  including PHP-4, Zope, Midgard, JServ, Tomcat, backhand and WebDAV; Lutris Enhydra 3.0; teleconferencing; Sendmail 8.10.2; Postfix 19991231pl08; Perl 5.005_03; Logical Volume Manager; PAM; KDE 1.1.2, KDE 2.0 Beta3, and GNOME 1.2.

 

SuSE Linux is known to be one of the richest and most complete versions of Linux, so almost all the important packages are there. One of the interesting new features is that SuSE Linux 7.0 can be installed and used using Braille; it can therefore be used and managed by the visually impaired.

 

Carl: What platforms does it support? What are the minimum requirements for SuSE?

 

Hohndel: At the moment, SuSE Linux is available as a shrink-wrapped product for Intel x86 and compatible processors (IA32), Motorola PowerPC and Compaq Alpha processors. A beta version for IBM mainframe S/390 can be taken from SuSE’s ftp server. Versions for SPARC and IA64 are under development and also available via FTP.

 

Von Wedel: Please see detailed information about some special hardware in our support database. Just search for the desired keyword at http://www.suse.com/support/hardware/index.html .

 

Carl: What are some configurations that SuSE would recommend, or it really excels with?

 

Hohndel: We have certified quite [a lot of] hardware with SuSE Linux, a current list can be found on our web site. I don't think that it makes sense to point out specific configurations, as those tend to change all too frequently.

 

Von Wedel: If you are running a NIS or simple file server, a slower Pentium or even a 486 would work fine. For a standard all-around machine, you would probably want the average machine found on the shelf at Best Buy or CompUSA [including] big hard drives, a Pentium III and at least 128 MB of RAM. This machine will allow you to run programs like Quake III and VMware without problem. We tell our customers to avoid any hardware where the manufacturer refuses to release open source drivers for it.

 

Carl: What would you say differentiates SuSE from other Linux distributions?

 

Hohndel: SuSE maintains consistent technical quality throughout all platforms and all languages. We also have an encyclopedic set of Linux tools, for which SuSE Linux is already famous. YaST and YaST2 are well known as solid and easy-to-use installation and configuration tools that are flexible enough to support a wide range of installation options for the enterprise environment.  Additionally, for optimized support for fully automated installation, SuSE's new ALICE (Automatic Linux Installation and Configuration Environment) tool allows central configuration management for computer networks.

 

Carl: What is YaST? Where can I find more information about it?

 

Hohndel: YaST stands for Yet another Setup Tool. A white paper that covers some of the important features is available on the web at http://www.suse.de/de/linux/whitepapers/yast/Auto_Install_English_text.txt.

 

What is important to know about YaST is that it offers a central configuration and administration interface, but can be told to stay out of the way if the admin chooses to configure parts of the system “manually.” So, you can benefit from the flexibility and know-how that has been put into the tool without being stuck with it. Many typical administration tasks (adding printers, setting up accounts, adding software packages) can comfortably be done from within YaST.

 

Carl: For someone operating an ISP, what reasons could you give to choose SuSE over another Linux distribution?

 

Hohndel: SuSE has a strong focus on security within its distribution. We do not only have an internal security team within SuSE Labs that audits all major packages and closely follows all relevant information sources, but we also maintain an active dialogue with our customer base, through mailing lists and security alerts.

 

Furthermore, SuSE is extremely well connected with numerous industry leaders, from both the technology and the business perspective. We maintain strategic alliances with IBM, Compaq, Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Oracle, SGI, and numerous other independent software vendors. And [since] SuSE supports the Free Standards Group, SuSE customers will be sure to use the widely spread Linux distribution that sets up the standards. Already today SuSE is compliant with all the draft standards from LSB [Linux Standards Base].

 

Carl: For someone operating an Internet server - what, if any, are the drawbacks for choosing SuSE?

 

Hohndel: Quite frankly, I don't see any drawbacks in choosing SuSE. Our system is well tested for exactly this use case. Interestingly enough, while globally about 30 percent of all web servers run Apache on Linux, in Germany, our “home turf,” that number is above 40 percent. So SuSE Linux is in very heavy use for exactly that – an Internet server.

 

Carl: What advantages would you cite for someone choosing SuSE Linux over another server OS, like Windows 2000, Solaris or FreeBSD?

 

Hohndel: Open Source is by many seen as the software development methodology of the future. Especially in the area of infrastructure systems, for example Internet servers, Open Source has gained the respect and the trust of the companies deploying these systems.

 

Linux is finally keeping the old Unix promise. It is the first truly homogeneous OS in a heterogeneous hardware environment. At the same time, it is a very flexible environment that allows for easy customization and can be adapted to the needs of very different use cases, from tightly controlled firewall system to fully-fledged server to complete desktop.

 

And, of course, there are lots of companies that develop on Linux and for Linux, and there is plenty of companies supporting Linux and offering professional services around Linux. SuSE is obviously one of them.

 

Depending on the OS that you compare with, a different combination of these arguments apply. :-)

 

Carl: Where could someone running an Internet server go for help and tips on SuSE?

 

Hohndel: We offer both support and professional services around SuSE Linux. A good place to start is http://www.suse.com/suse/news/PressReleases/proserv.html. We already offer 24x7 support here in Germany and will roll out this service globally, soon.

 

And of course we offer the famous support database and component database (http://sdb.suse.de/sdb/en/html/index.html and http://cdb.suse.de/cdb_english.html).

 

Carl: What's next for SuSE? What improvements are you planning for the future?

 

Hohndel: We continuously expand the hardware base that SuSE Linux supports. As I mentioned above, S/390, IA64 and SPARC are already in beta test (or close to production), and others will follow.

 

The installation and configuration tools are continuously being developed and will of course be one of the areas that we continue to focus on. Especially things like improved hardware detection, but also ergonomic aspects of the administration process.

 

And of course we are putting a lot of effort in many Open Source projects. [These include] “enterprise” features like high availability, improved SMP support or our work on directory services and better file systems, or desktop-oriented things like XFree86 and KDE.

 

An important focus of improvements is ISV [Independent Software Vendor] support. We are working closely with many ISVs to help them port their software to a standardized Linux environment to get the largest set of applications for Linux possible.

 

So there are a lot of things that you can expect from SuSE in the future. We are excited to be in this fast-growing industry and are looking forward to the things to come.