Novell Linux Desktop 9: Grabbing a Part of the Enterprise

Novell’s Linux Desktop distribution was widely expected last year. When it finally got released in December 2004, it had to compete with Red Hat’s own Enterprise Desktop solution and Novell’s very own SuSE. So, how does Novell Linux Desktop 9 (NLD) fairs?

Click for a larger view NLD came in 3 CDs. Installation is almost identical to SuSE’s and so there is nothing new to report here apart from the screen that lets you choose between Gnome and KDE as your main interface. Everyrhing got autodetected automatically, except the monitor. In the second stage of the installation, right at the end of the configuration wizard, the machine froze with a black screen. The CapsLock was working, but there was no way I could bring the machine back, changing consoles didn’t help and SSH wasn’t loaded at the time.

Click for a larger viewAfter resetting the machine, NLD loaded fine. The framebuffer background is beautiful and elegant. The only things that weren’t configured at that point was the keymap and the sound card. Running Yast2 fixed these issues easily (however on a consequent boot a few days later, the sound card stopped working all of a sudden for my user and I had to re-setup it via Yast2, see screenshot). When tried to run Yast2 to fix the monitor/resolution it would again result to the same black-screen freeze as earlier. The monitor was defaulted with the fbdev driver running 1280×1024 at 60 Hz, while my 19″ Envision monitor can do 1600×1200 at 75 Hz and 1280×1024 at 85 Hz. The graphics card is a GeForce2-MX PCI 64 MBs and works well with the “nv” driver (the onboard SiS AGP card is disabled). Other distros and Mac OS X don’t have a problem with this monitor/card combo, the monitor is fully compliant in the way it reports its VESA capabilities.

I edited the XF86Config file myself to make it load the “nv” in the requested resolution/refresh rate. Problem was, when I got to Yast to deal with the keymap (it seems that it defaults to the DE keymap if no setup takes place like in my case because of the crash) , it would overwrite my XF86Config and produce a version that’s not parsable by XFree86. Ah… I wish for some XML-based configuration for XOrg…

Click for a larger viewAnyways, things got smooth after passed that point. The OS seems to be of the same performance as Red Hat’s solutions, including boot times (tested on a 1.2 GHz Duron with 384 MB RAM). With a quick look in “top” over the default installation, it seems to require about 130 MBs of memory for an empty Gnome desktop, which is far better than Fedora’s default 145-160 MBs (my very lightweight Arch Linux setup –most services removed– requires about 112 MB with an empty Gnome 2.8.2, barely running on my old 128 MB laptop when Firefox is loaded). I quickly also loaded KDE and it requires ‘only’ 98 MBs of RAM for its empty desktop, so I must call for Gnome optimizations, once again.

The distribution includes the applications everyone would expect from an office-oriented distribution: with the GTK+ widgets (looks really good), Evolution, Firefox 0.10 and even a Citrix ICA client. Then, there is iFolder, a major part of NLD. iFolder let’s you synchronize your files between different machines at home or work. It’s a super-convenient tool for business professionals who travel a lot or who work from home a few days per week.

Some of the neat tools included is the netapplet and the resapplet (both reside on the gnome-panel) that allow one to change a wireless/wired network and monitor resolution respectively, on the fly. Also, apparently there is a mail merge ability of against Evolution’s address book. It is nice to see some interoperation between Evolution’s address book and other apps, like Gaim’s contacts for example.

NLD includes Gnome 2.6.0 but some of its applications are updated to their 2.6.1 and 2.6.2 versions, so it’s a mixed version Gnome. The Gnome DE looks good (even if a bit bright for my taste because of the theme used), it’s as functional I would expect it, and the background images included in the distro are beautiful (way better than Red Hat’s ;). Problem is that they are scattered on different folders and so not all pre-installed background images are showing automatically on the “desktop background” dialog.

My favorite part of the whole NLD experience is Red Carpet (now called ZenWorks). Red Carpet let’s you download updates to the system from Novell’s servers and even subscribe to third party channels that might offer free NLD packages to enrich your desktop experience. Its interface is simple, elegant. I wish more distributions would use its engine and GUI to adapt it to their own package formats (e.g. Arch Linux for pacman packages would be great). I used Red Carpet to update the system and also installed the developer’s package (gcc, make etc) which is not installed by default.

Click for a larger viewTwo other things that need more work in NLD in my opinion are these:
1. Mono applications! Mono 1.0 is included, but I have seen no actual Mono GUI apps included (except maybe some parts of iFolder) and that’s a shame because the Mono team at Novell does a great job. A good idea would have been to include Imendio Blam! as there was no other RSS reader included with the distro anyway (Liferea would been my first option if there was no Mono).
2. There are duplicate menu items. For example, Evolution appears 3-4 times in the Gnome menu (under different names some times), while Calculator and the Unicode/Char map also appear twice under the “Accessories” and its “More >>>” sub-menu. Duplications of this nature are UI bugs in my opinion, plus the Unicode and Char map should become a single tool.

Regarding Yast2, it feels out of place when under Gnome. I hope Novell works on the looks/HIG of it soon. Having said that, Yast2 does the job well (minus the monitor problem). It includes preference panels for most common settings, helping the user to setup services, hardware and software in a logical manner. I much prefer Yast2 over Mandrake’s setting panels, however I do prefer Red Hat’s over Yast2 in terms of usability (please note that Yast2 is more useful and feature complete than Red Hat’s panels though, it just needs to work on its UI). Also, there is a certain duplication going on with Yast2’s software package management front-end and Red Carpet. If Mac OS X had two 90% similar “software update” applications I don’t think I would feel good about it either…

Real Player is included, but it stopped loading here all of a sudden. It worked 2-3 times, but now it just doesn’t load (I reckon this has something to do with my SiS AC97 sound card not providing hardware mixing, an ALSA problem that Mandrake is trying to fix in their latest beta).

Click for a larger viewNow, to the really nasty stuff: Fast forward three days of normal usage without major problems going on. Woke up in the morning, turned on the PC, only to find the whole GConf database buggered. Nothing works correctly, no icons are loaded, no settings, nothing (check screenshot). I suspected that this was probably GConf’s error and so I logged out, and manually ran “gconftool-rebuild”. This fixed everything, but that wasn’t a great experience I got right over there, completely unexpected and without myself having messed up with the machine in any way (note: the gconf crash happened before I even got Red Carpet to update the system, so that was not it).

So, overall, what do I think of NLD9? I like it. It’s an interesting distribution, more modern than Red Hat’s Linux Desktop for the Enterprise and with some interesting tools integrated to the distro. Cohesion and consistency and interoperability between different applications seems to be the moto for NLD. However, some bugs plague the otherwise good impression I get from the system. For a first version, I find it to be definetely a positive effort and I have absolute trust to Novell’s engineer to bring innovation to the desktop. I can’t wait for that future version that would include Beagle, for example, and XGL, the OpenGL accelerated X server! That could kick Novell’s Unix competition out of the picture easily!

Pros: easy installation, modern looks, bundled with good set of enterprise utils, Red Carpet really convenient.
Cons: more UI clean up required, some bugs, slow boot-up, doesn’t push the envelope against its competition.
Overall: 7/10


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