The 9.1 version of SuSE Linux -- Novell acquired the German Linux distributor last year -- is the first complete commercial Linux distribution to support the 2.6 kernel, said Novell. The 2.6 kernel was released in December 2003.
Turning to the new kernel, said Chris Schlager, vice president of research and development with SuSE AG, gives users a bigger bang for their buck. Among the improvements that 2.6 brings to the table, he said, are overall performance improvements, the ability to power down systems and components (handy for laptops, for instance), and better memory management.
"In general, the overall memory management in 2.6 has been significantly improved," said Schlager. Although the improvements may not as drastic on the desktop, where computers with a gigabyte or less of memory are typical, as on higher-end systems with 4GB or more of RAM, "a 15 to 20 percent performance gain won't be uncommon," he said.
Toggling between multiple windows should be faster on the desktop, and a new feature in the 2.6 kernel that allows for switching between optimized throughput and latency modes make the 9.1 versions of the OS smart for high-end users compiling video content and average users watching on-screen DVDs.
"Users not worried about throughput, but more concerned about video latency can toggle the operation modes. At a workstation, that means shorter latency can be switched on so that video doesn't drop out frames," said Schlager.
Other improvements of the new kernel speed up CD and DVD burning, and offer more efficient power management features for notebooks.
Schlager's not worried about committing to the 2.6 kernel, which, he said, has proved to be very stable. "There are some issues [with 2.6] still left, but since we're only in beta now [for 9.1], I'm confident that we'll solve the remaining problems before May."
Novell will release two version of Linux 9.1 on May 6, a low-end Personal Edition aimed at consumers and businesses that want to run Linux exclusively, and a higher-end Professional Edition, which targets technical users, those who need network or server functionality, and who want Linux as a development platform.
Both editions also include the latest Gnome and KDE desktop, as well as a host of Linux applications, including OpenOffice 1.1, the open-source application suite.
Personal Edition will sell for $29.95, while Professional's price tag will come in at $89.95.
The Professional Edition of 9.1 is designed for both 32- and 64-bit environments, and will run not only on machines packing Intel's 32-bit desktop CPUs, but also AMD's 64-bit Athlon and Intel's upcoming 64-bit extended technology.
"The 64-bit market is picking up strongly now," said Schlager. "We think 9.1's support of both 32- and 64-bit is justified, now that there's been some time for processor makers to get their chips to market."
Novell's move to the 2.6 kernel is good to hear, said Dan Kusnetzky, the vice president of systems software research at IDC, but it's an evolutionary step, not revolutionary.
"The 2.6 kernel is a nice improvement [over 2.4], but it's not something that changes the market in dramatic ways. However, taken together, the improvements do create a much more capable and scalable system."
Novell's move to the newest Linux kernel beats rival Red Hat to the punch -- according to Kusnetzky, Red Hat hasn't committed to 2.6 -- but that doesn't mean SuSE is in the cat bird seat.
"This won't take SuSE and make it a replacement for Red Hat," he said, noting that SuSE's competitor remains the dominant leader in Linux.
"But Red Hat's approach -- either the enterprise or nothing -- has left a vacuum [on the retail side of the desktop market] that SuSE can certainly fill," he added. "It offers an opportunity for SuSE."
Another factor in the competition between Red Hat and Novell's SuSE, said Kusnetzky, is that Novell has indemnified corporate users against future litigation by The SCO Group, which has filed lawsuits against both IBM and Novell in its tussle over Linux's code.
"Red Hat has pledged a $1 million fund to cover legal expenses of companies which may be sued by SCO, but in the long view that amount is relatively small. Novell, on the other hand, is offering full indemnification," said Kusnetzky.
"People concerned about SCO's legal maneuverings might find SuSE a better choice."