Review SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) is perhaps best known as the distro whose owner Novell, in 2005, signed an extremely unpopular patent-protection deal with Microsoft. From that moment on, Novell was essentially dead to those that prize the free software aspects of Linux.
Given SLED's $120 price tag, individuals unconcerned by Novell's ideological stance will likely not be interested in this distro, especially when Ubuntu, Fedora and dozens of other Linux distros are "free".
That's okay, though. Neither free software enthusiasts nor home users are really Novell's target audience with SLED 11, the latest edition released late last month.
SLED is designed for businesses. Much of Novell's development efforts on SLED are geared toward making Linux play well with Windows. For businesses that need those features, the SLED distribution makes a compelling option.
The enterprise version of SUSE should not be confused with openSUSE, the free, open, community-supported version, which has no direct connection to Novell.
So what do you get for your deal with the devil?
Well, SLED 11 brings all the updates found in openSUSE 11.1 and also includes a number of Novell-developed features like the AppArmor security tool, and some proprietary apps you won't find in your typical open-source Linux distro, such as Adobe's Acrobat Reader.
You'll also find support for Mono, the Novell-backed implementation of Microsoft's .NET for Linux and Unix that allows some .NET applications to run on SLED. Home users might not have much use for .NET, but given that it's a popular choice for businesses' internal applications, ensuring that those apps can run in SLED is a big part of Novell's integration strategy.
But SLED's main selling point for businesses is that it can be quickly and easily integrated into existing Windows networks. True, with a bit of tinkering and manual configuration you can get other distros to connect to Windows networks and play nice with app, print or file servers, but SLED just works.
SLED 11 delivers a Windows-like arrangement of Gnome
Installing SLED 11 is a snap. Just insert the DVD, select your preferred setup and click install. Once you've said "Yes" to a slew of proprietary licensing agreements - Flash, Java, Agfa fonts and more - the whole process takes less than half an hour. We opted to install the default Gnome 2.24, but you can also install KDE 4.1 if Gnome is not to your liking.
Also worth noting - SLED 11 uses the ext3 filesystem rather than the ReiserFS as in the past. For those that love the ReiserFS, it will still be supported, you'll just have to set it up yourself before installing.
Once the installation is finished you'll be greeted by a very Windows-like arrangement of Gnome, with the main panel, and even start button, down at the bottom of the window. As with openSUSE 11, the focus is on making the Gnome environment match the Windows experience. The results will be familiar enough for Windows users to pick up on, but shouldn't leave Linux fans feeling lost.
The one place we found SLED's setup to be a bit confusing was the system admin tools. There are no less than three panels you'll need to dig through to make any customizations to your system - the Control Center, Application Browser and the YaST2 setup panel. Those unfamiliar with SLED's setup will have a hard time figuring out which options are in which panel.
The rest of our experience with SLED matched that of other Linux distros but with slight Novell tweaks - apps like OpenOffice 3.0 and the Evolution Mail client have been customized to work better with Microsoft tools like the Open Office XML (OOXML) format for OpenOffice, and Exchange Servers in Evolution.
Again, you could do the tweaking and adding yourself, but the idea is that Novell saves you the trouble. For the home user that isn't much trouble to save; for a business administrator with 1,500 workstations to keep track of, well, you can see the selling point.
Document-level interoperability in SLED 11
And for the most part the "interoperability" that Novell likes to boast about, did indeed work. We were able to connect to an Exchange Server and retrieve mail without any issues. Opening, saving and working with OOXML files also presented no real problems, though in one case when we moved the documents back to Microsoft Office 2007 there were some mangled characters and other formatting flaws.
Performance-wise SLED is on par with other distros using the 2.6.27 Linux kernel and Gnome 2.24. You'll miss out on some of the newer features in Gnome 2.26, but you can always upgrade yourself. On the KDE side it's disappointing to see the rather lackluster 4.1 version is the default, especially given that 4.2 is a huge stability improvement.
The bottom line? We definitely do not recommend SLED for the casual home user or the free-software purists.
For the enterprise, though, SLED 11 is a worthy desktop distro, which has the extras that might finally give those businesses still sitting on the fence what it takes to pick Linux rather than Windows for their PCs. ®