Novell Linux Desktop reviewed: A New Linux Desktop for Enterprise Customers

Posted by dave on Nov 15, 2004 5:10 AM
LXer; By Tom Adelstein

Tom has reviewed the Novell Linux Desktop, a new desktop for enterprise customers.


Figure 1. Novell's Linux Desktop GDM Screen.



While installing the Novell desktop, I felt a rush of excitement. The screen displays reminded me of many SuSE Linux installations, but the Novell logo took me back to a fonder time when I started work on becoming a Certified Novell Engineer. Opening my first Novell training manuals back in 1993 provided a lot of excitement too.

After getting over the first waves of enthusiasm, I remembered that this exercise provided an opportunity to evaluate the Novell Linux Desktop (NLD). I began taking notes and discovered a familiarity with the process. Soon, I faced choices on how I would install NLD. Novell gave me a choice of KDE or Gnome. If I didn't know which one to choose, the screen said to ask my administrator. Now, I realized this was an enterprise desktop not one for end users.



First Try, Installing What I Wanted



Knowing most of the SuSE tricks for installing only the Linux packages I wanted, I went into the software menu and picked my favorite applications. I then proceeded to configure the system and complete the three CD install. After the final reboot, I found myself in a mess. I looked at an old X11 login screen similar to ones we used in 1998. I logged in with my user name and discovered a jumbled collage of menus, applications and junk.



No matter how I tried to fix the NLD desktop, it refused to give me what I wanted. If you attempt to install NLD like SuSE, you'll discover that it's based on SuSE but it's engineered differently. You don't get to mix and match desktops and applications. You either chose Gnome or KDE.



After examining and tinkering with configuration files, run levels, initiation scripts, services, the proc files, the X11 setup and the file tree, logic dictated that going back and reinstalling the system made sense. That course proved the most fruitful. Two installations later, I saw the KDE and the Gnome default systems.




Figure 2. The NLD KDE Desktop.



Figure 3. The NLD Gnome Desktop.

Figures 2 and 3 provide a look at the default themes of the KDE and Gnome desktops. Interestingly, once you install the Gnome desktop, you can change it before logging in and choose the KDE desktop. One has to attribute this to SuSE's history of using KDE as its default.




Figure 4, the Root Password Prompt



Looking at Figure 4, you can see that even in the Gnome desktop mode, the KDE root password prompt pops up when attempting to do administrative tasks. When realizing that one can change default desktops after installation,the earlier restrictions seem odd. Why do you have to go through the exercise of choosing a default desktop if you can change it once installed?

Note: One concern about writing this review involves the nature of big corporate distributors. Instead of viewing this observation as a possible Quality Assurance problem, the distributor may just attribute it to a press bias. More on that later in the review.



Positive Differentiators in NLD

Once you begin exploring the Novell Linux Desktop, you will notice a well organized business desktop. Advertised as a desktop for the enterprise it has many features corporate users will want. For example in Figure 5, you will notice the Citrix ICA Client for Linux. For users of distributed applications, Citrix has a large install base, especially for Windows applications.


Figure 5, Citrix ICA Client for Linux

Novell uses the 2.6 version of Gnome desktop. The desktop in its default mode looks and behaves similar to the Ximian desktop developed prior to their acquisition by Novell. In our screen shots, you will notice that we placed the gnome 2.6 panel on the bottom of the screen similar to other desktop versions. In Figure 6, you can see the launch menu that pops up when one clicks on the large "N" to the left of the panel.




Figure 6. Launch Menu

Additionally, a launch menu exists to the right of the applications menu, which you can see in Figure 7. Novell calls this the "System Menu". Putting it on another launcher doesn't seem intuitive, but for users with little experience perhaps it's functional. The system menu allows the system to logout with the sequence System ->Logout or lock their monitor, keyboard and pointing device with System ->Lock Screen, etc.




Figure 7. System Menu

In addition to providing the Citrix ICA Client, NLD provides additional interoperability within Windows Networks by offering a Terminal Server Client (TSC) and with Evolution version 2.0, which can connect to Microsoft exchange as well as Novell GroupWise. Figure 8 shows a shot of the TSC, which uses Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to Windows Terminal Servers - Microsoft's thin client/interoperable terminal server solution.




Figure 8. Terminal Server Client

The Novell Desktop Client uses three methods for installing software. During installation, you can download any updates before your installation completes. NLD uses Novell ZENworks for that purpose. This provides a convenience as other distributions require the user to finish the initial install and then perform an update.

After installation, NLD uses Ximian's Red Carpet for update services or adding additional software. One of the stranger nuances of using Red Carpet appears when the user changes channels and decides to add the "server" components of SuSE Linux Enterprise System 9, which were originally stripped out of the NLD for security reasons.


Figure 9. Red Carpet Update and Installation Utility

In figure 9, you can see that Red Carpet offers update services, a look at installed software and then available software. Under the available software, you can find server software such as Apache, which you can select, download and install. By clicking on the package one chooses, Red Carpet places it in the left panel under Pending Actions and once you click Run Now, Red Carpet looks for dependencies, alerts you as to what it will install and when you click OK -- goes ahead and installs the software.



In addition to Red Carpet, NLD includes SuSE's Yast2 administration tool, which also lets you install software from the installation disks, a hard drive or a server. In Figure 10 you can see a screen shot of the Yast2 tool. We highlighted the Software section so you can see the various options in the right window.


Figure 10. Yast2 Administration Utility

We consider Red Carpet the best package management tool in the Novell arsenal. However, we question the need for three installation packages on one distribution. You might find this a problem if you're administering the desktop. Obviously, Novell will have this issue nailed down when it goes into the work place. Administrators will tighten down the desktop and make only certain applications available. Perhaps that's why Novell calls NLD an enterprise desktop. Few would want someone on the inside of a network to have access to options available to either Yast2 or Red Carpet.

In Figure 11, notice how Red Carpet handles dependencies when one clicks on a RPM software package someone wants to install from their desktop.


Figure 11. Red Carpet Installing Linux Packages



In this instance, we downloaded an RPM built for another SuSE based distribution. The package provides the user with Midnight Commander, a text based file management tool with an interface similar to Norton Commander. We simply double clicked the package in the Nautilus file browser and the Red Carpet facility opened in a window. After that, it installed the package. With so many repositories of Linux packages available on the Internet, Novell will have to provide administrative tools to prevent a user from gaining access to these installation tools.

Additional Features of NLD

The Novel Linux Desktop comes with the latest version of Evolution, OpenOffice.org 1.13, Mozilla Firefox browser and gaim's multi-protocol instant messaging client. NLD also comes with a plethora of additional applications. Typical of SuSE Linux, more applications exist than with other distributions of Linux.


Figure 12. Evolution Version 2.0

The Evolution client has gone through a significant evolution since becoming part of Novell. As you can see in Figure 12, the interface looks less like a clone of Microsoft Outlook and more like the GroupWise client. One might consider this a step backwards for Linux users' favorite mail and calendaring application. A reason exists for Microsoft having several 100 million Outlook clients on their desktops while GroupWise ranks in single digit market share.



We had trouble technically with the 2.0 version of Evolution. While every upgrade from Evolution version 1.0 went smoothly and without a hitch, that did not occur with NLD. Evolution 2 did not recognize the older directory and only captured the contact list. A few thousand mail messages did not make it into version 2.0. We did get an error message, though.

Fortunately, we did download approximately 500 messages that were not stored locally.If your email resides on an IMAP server, you should be spared the loss of your messages. Hopefully Novell will fix the upgrade problem.

Openoffice.org 1.13 has a familiar look and feel if you have used the Ximian desktop in the past. Ximian provided numerous enhancements to the Open Source official productivity suite as part of its desktop. Those enhancements made their way into the latest version.


Figure 13. OpenOffice.org Writer

You can get an idea of the look and feel of NLD's OpenOffice.org from Figure 13. The productivity suite has many unique features and exceptional compatibility with Microsoft Office. NDL's version saves its documents by default in Microsoft's formats. We also understand that Novell completed its conversion from Microsoft Office to Openoffice.org earlier this year. So, one might conclude that NLD's bundled package resembles one used internally at Novell.

This reviewer wonders however about the decision to include Openoffice.org in a product for enterprise customers when it could have easily negotiated an attractive price for StarOffice from Sun Microsystems. Sun's office suite has the code base of Openoffice.org, but the presentation closely resembles Microsoft Office products. Regardless, enterprise customers should accept NDL's office suite.

NLD also includes Mozilla products including the very popular Firefox browser. In our tests of the browser we found that it worked with Realplayer 10 and Shockwave. From Red Carpet, we downloaded the IBM distribution of the Java Runtime Environment (JRE). Firefox ran quickly and provided excellent renderings. Figure 14 provides a look at the Firefox browser with a theme installed from Mozdev.org.




Figure 14. Firefox Browser with Optional Theme

Some Annoyances

In September 2002, several major Linux distributors began enterprise desktop initiatives including IBM and Sun. Xandros released its version 1.0 desktop as did Lindows, now Linspire, and Lycoris. All of these distributions recognized the need for users to run Windows applications under native Linux code. Many options exist including VMWare, NeTraverse and Codeweavers. Xandros even includes Codeweavers Crossover Office based on the open source WINE project.

One would suppose that NLD would accommodate Crossover Office. SuSE provides facilities for the Codeweaver's product on its KDE desktop. Sun provides the same functionality on its Gnome desktop. NLD did provide facilities for Codeweavers on the Gnome side of its desktop.


Figure 15. Codeweavers Crossover Office under NLD Gnome

The Codeweavers 3.0 RPM installed without any problems. However, neither the application or any win32 apps ran off the menu. We installed several applications including efax Messenger and WinSCP. The later's icon did appear on the desktop, however, none of the win32 applications were accessible from either launch menu. In Figure 15, you can see that we manage to run the office utility from the command line.



In our discussions with enterprises adopting Linux desktops, Crossover Office remains a constant requirement. Novell might want to patch its desktop to accommodate WINE for customers regardless of how purists in the community might view that decision. Linux remains a challenger facing a formidable incumbent in the desktop space.

Additionally, we attempted to use the network browsing utility on NLD. We found several problems using this utility. Aside from the lack of an option to use a single window for browsing the network, the utility should provide the ability to launch an application when a file is located on a smb type share.


Figure 16. Network Browser

Network browsing capabilities in Linux have existed for several years. An enterprise desktop can fit easily into a Microsoft network and/or an UNIX/Linux network with this capability. Novell would do well to test the Xandros Desktop and/or Red Flag Linux to see this capability. The now deprecated Corel Linux provided Network browsing in version 1.0 release in 2000.

The Nautilus file browsing utility in NLD requires enhancements. Novell used the standard Nautilus utility in Gnome 2.6, which does not appropriately support enterprise clients. We found this an annoyance.

A final example includes the Network Time Protocol (NTP) service available through Yast2. Looking at Figure 17, you can see the interesting interface required to configure a NTP client.


Figure 17. Network Time Protocol Client

The instructions on how to configure the NTP client exist on the left sideof the screen. Novell provides the URL to a web site dedicated to explaining and providing links to NTP services. So, to configure the service, one has to open a Web browser, go to the URL and look for a time server. To experienced Linux users this presents no problem. For enterprise users new to Linux, this requires a call for help desk support. Novell can populate the client with known public servers that work.



Some Final Thoughts



A tip of the hat to Novell for its commitment to open standards, Linux and its new business model. Many people should find your desktop a worthy entry into the market. You'll have some growing pains, but your product has excellent potential.

The challenge facing Novell exceeds providing a worthy entry to the Linux desktop market. An opportunity exists to provide an extraordinary desktop product by only going a few inches farther in your quest.

The rap on Linux distributors in the past still holds true: Linux distributors are underachievers. This does not mean much to the open source technical community because we have always had an attitude of doing it ourselves. In fact, the mere existence of Linux provides millions of us with a fascinating technology with which to learn and grow. Many Linux technologists do what they can to communicate with userland. Left on their own, they would continue whether Linux excelled on the desktop or not.

If Novell wants to make a contribution to Linux, then create a desktop that the broad market can embrace.



###

Additional Information



Product Page for Novell Linux Desktop http://www.novell.com/products/desktop



Evaluation Download Page http://www.novell.com/products/desktop/eval.html

Requirements: Pentium II or better running at least 266MHz with 256MB of RAM, 800MB of disk space and 800-by-600 or higher display resolution. Resolution of 1,024 by 768 or higher, however, would be better.

The desktop is based on the Linux 2.6.5 kernel and offers users a choice of the KDE 3.3 and GNOME 2.6 desktops.

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