My first experiments with GNU/Linux began in December 1998. I bought a boxed edition of Red Hat, and couldn’t get it to install. I moved on to OpenCaldera, which did install, and stayed with it for 6 months before moving to SuSE 6.4. I’ve used SuSE/openSUSE ever since, and it’s been wonderful. I’ve looked at a few other distros in the meantime, but I’ve never been tempted away from what seemed to me to be the Rolls-Royce of Linux distros. Even the Novell purchase, which some people were concerned about at the time, resulted in new and exciting developments like the Build Service and openSUSE Studio.
But over the last couple of years, openSUSE seems to have lost its way a bit. I don’t blame Novell trying to focus on enterprise use (that’s where its bread-and-butter comes from), and minimise the amount of time devoted to non-enterprise users, but this seems to have led to some odd decisions being made.
I’m still running 10.2 on my main machine. 10.2 is a couple of years old now, and in fact the repos for it have been emptied, so there are no updated packages available any more. So why am I doing this? The main reason is package management. Sometime around 9.2, the package management system began to be overhauled, and the net result was a tremendous loss of functionality. The first few iterations of the new system were slow and buggy, so much so that I started using first apt4rpm, and then the excellent Smart for package management. The 10.2 system was much faster, but had the unfeature that you could not save the packages you downloaded, so if you wanted to install them on several machines on your network you had to download them separately on each one (I know there are ways around this, but Smart was easier ). The new 11.x systems are very fast (using deltas), and you can save the downloaded packages, but 11.2 has the bizarre unfeature that the package management system will not list or download packages in any new repos that you add, until you tell it to (see here, for instance – there is a better post about this from an openSUSE developer, but I can’t find it ATM).
This appears to have been done in order to minimise bug reports and queries from people along the lines of “I installed x from rep y, and now my system is broked”. Fair enough. But when I tried the new 11.2 a couple of months ago, I was pretty surprised when I added a new repo, and couldn’t get a listing of packages that I knew from the webpage listing were there. It took me about 3 hours to figure out what the problem was, and I wasn’t pleased, particularly since there was nothing in the release notes or in the package manager itself to tell you about this – it might have been sensible for whoever signed off on this decision to ensure that the repo manager popped up a message when you added a new repo, saying that it will not be activated unless you confirm that you know what you’re doing.
So for me, this was the last straw – four iterations of the distro and the package manager was still behaving unintuitively. I’d been using 64Studio, and quite liked apt-get, and then that was moved from a Debian base to an Ubuntu one last year. I was also noticing that there’s a lot of Ubuntu about – packages for it seem to be made quite widely, and there is a lot of info about it on the web. I’d tried Ubuntu last year, and was quite impressed, especially when I switched to Kubuntu, and did a complete dist-upgrade without a hitch (though mistrust returned when one morning said Kubuntu just refused to boot, and seemed to have FUBARed itself). It also got brownie points for doing a flawless UNR install on my eeePC, and a similarly flawless one on my R41 laptop, and even going online without a hitch via wired, wireless and mobile dongle. And the clincher was that Linode offers a virtual Ubuntu instance, with some excellent notes on how to configure various bits of software. It made sense to run the same distro on my desktop as I had on the server, not least because you can test things there before they go online.
So I took the plunge and did an Ubuntu install on my second PC. I kept GNOME on for about 3 weeks until I couldn’t stand their file dialogue any more, and upgraded to Kubuntu. KDE 4.3 is actually very nice now, and has most of the old KDE 3.x features back in. The only problem I have noticed is that iBus, the new system for using characters-sets like Chinese, seems to freeze the display after about 36 hours. The workaround is to quit it when it’s not in use.
Setting up Apache, PHP, R, LaTeX, etc, has been very easy. The only sad point there is that the cran2deb repo isn’t really useable on Ubuntu, because Ubuntu decided to break binary compatibility with Debian. But all in all, I’m quite impressed so far – a consumer version of GNU/Linux.
It will be interesting to see if Ubuntu stands the test of time (10 years) like openSUSE, but for me at the minute it’s certainly a better bet.