Quick Review: Novell Linux DesktopQuick Review: Novell Linux Desktop
NLD offers a reasonable alternative to Windows, especially for Novell-centric shops, though some rough edges remain.
November 13, 2004
I've been a skeptic of desktop Linux claims for years, so naturally I asked to look at the Novell Linux Desktop 9, which was released for download earlier this week. My initial impressions of the product, based on the installation and some stealthy poking around, were mostly favorable. The product's tight ties to Novell network services such as ZEN works and iFolder make it a viable candidate for the desktop in most Novell-centric shops. Just don't expect it to go beyond the traditional SUSE distribution for the likes of Active Directory and other Redmond services. Look for a full, in-depth review in our January 20th, 2005 issue of Network Computing.
NLD is based on SUSE 9.1. In the beginning of this year, Novell acquired SUSE outright. Unless I am mistaken, this is the first Linux distribution to be manufactured by a large, well known corporation with R&D money to burn. The installer is composed of 3 CDs that can be downloaded from Novell's site. Yes, that's a 1.83GB to download. And bear in mind that you're only downloading an evaluation copy. This distribution isn't completely free, it has an MSRP of $50.00 per system.
First thing you will notice is the extensive branding. The Novell logo and the big red 'N', are everywhere. Aside from that, this distribution behaves very much like SUSE. Installation is done via a simple yet straight forward GUI. You can choose to use either Gnome or KDE as the desktop environment. From what I understand, Novell prefers Gnome. I've always had a soft spot for KDE. But to be fair, I installed NLD with KDE on one computer, and NLD with Gnome on a second one. The Gnome system appears to be more polished and has a better interface than KDE. Thankfully, neither interface posed any installation or setup problems. You also get Firefox with Gnome, Konquerer with KDE and the OpenOffice.org suite with both GUIs.
In the time I've spent working with NLD, I've run into a few oddities. During the installation, gimp-help and xine-lib failed to install. The error was a mismatched MD5 checksum. These packages failed to install, but everything else installed fine. This type of error is odd, something you don't expect to see in a standard install. Additionally, there wasn't any apparent way to join an Active Directory domain, although you can authenticate against an LDAP server. Obviously, Novell has spent its time developing appropriate hooks into its own directory and various network services. Along those lines, you can use ZENworks to centrally manage and deploy patches. Sadly, Groupwise support is still in the development branch. But support for iFolder is available if you run the Novell Open Enterprise Server.
The most frustration I experienced with NDL stemmed from its help system. Searching for "network" only gave me a link to the release notes and a few man pages. I didn't get any hits for creating sym links. Also, there isn't a training guide for new users. This is something I think all operating system (Windows, Linux and Mac) manufacturers are lacking today. Remember the old "Macintosh Basics" and "Mouse Practice" programs that came with early Macs? They were animated programs that guided you through the interface and explained how to actually use the OS and the mouse. These disappeared in recent years, which is a shame. At least in Mac OS X, there is an HTML guide for new users to OS X. There are help guides for new computer users, for Mac OS 9 users and for Windows switchers. Novell would be wise to include a "Windows converts guide", as NLD is obviously a replacement for Windows on the desktop.
On the positive side, I was able to actually print out of the box. I scanned my subnet for network printers, and was able to print a page with no hassles. This surprised me, as printing has traditionally been a problem. Lack of printer drivers, difficult configurations and unusable auto-discovery tools were all trouble in the past. Basic networking also seemed to work well. I was able to browse the Windows network and authenticate to SMB shares without modifying any configuration files. It just worked, right out of the box.
What I'm most curious about is what advantage NLD offers over all the other Linux distributions, especially if you're not a predominantly Novell shop. I don't see any particular disadvantage of using NLD in non-Novell environments, but support for iFolder and Groupwise is a definite plus for Novell shops. I'm also curious as to how well NLD will integrate with Windows networks and application services. We'll answer these questions in our final review, after we've spent more time with the product.
Michael J. DeMaria is an associate technology editor based at Network Computing's Syracuse University's Real-World Labs. Write to him at [email protected].
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