What's a SUSE?

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Say what you will about Microsoft's products, one thing it does very well is the naming of parts. By adopting an almost childlike literalism, Microsoft makes it trivially easy to work out what its applications do. Windows? - graphical operating system; Windows Explorer? - file navigation; Internet Explorer? - Internet navigation; Word? - word processor. Free software, alas, takes a rather different approach.

Fedora: er, a hat, no? Ubuntu: an African word meaning 'Humanity to others', or 'I am what I am because of who we all are'; riiight. And as for openSUSE – what exactly *is* a SUSE?

Actually, it was originally written “SuSE”, and stood for “Software-und-System-Entwicklung” - “Software and System Development”. As one of its founders, Roland Dyroff, told me back in 2000:

The plan for setting up the company was Unix-focused consulting and software development. But before this plan could really be executed, Linux came in and the focus went to Linux.

The company was first formed in 1992, and its first GNU/Linux offering to customers appeared in March 1993, and consisted of an extremely early distro known as SLS, put together by Peter MacDonald. The company's German origins meant that it grew to become the leading European distribution.

However, SuSE's fate took a different turn when it was acquired by Novell in November 2003, for a rather cool $200 million, to sit alongside the earlier purchase of Ximian.

An important milestone was the creation of openSuSE, which aimed to open up the project. That might seem strange for what was already an open source endeavour, but it was perceptive move, because it recognised that opening up the code was not enough: the whole *process* of constructing a distro needs to be as inclusive as possible if the full power of open collaborative development is to be realised.

Interestingly, that was the main theme of a meeting I had a couple of days ago with Joe Brockmeier, openSUSE's Community Manager. He's probably better known as Zonker and for his writing about open source – something he manages to keep going on the side, despite turning gamekeeper (or should that be poacher?). Again, this stems from a recognition within Novell that top-down control is not the most efficient way to run a distro – and certainly not the best way to get people to contribute their time and effort.

I asked Brockmeier how he saw OpenSUSE as differentiating itself from the hundreds of other distros out there – and from the other big names. In his view, Fedora is characterised by its emphasis on truly free software, and a desire to ship stuff first. Ubuntu, he says, is aimed at new users. OpenSUSE, by contrast, is designed primarily with IT professionals in mind.

One aspect of that is its greater emphasis on interoperability, including interoperability with a certain closed-source company based in Seattle. Novell's 2006 deal with Microsoft was controversial not so much because of that, as for the software patent element:

Under the agreement, Novell is establishing clear leadership among Linux platform and open source software providers on interoperability for mixed-source environments. As a result, Microsoft will officially recommend SUSE Linux Enterprise for customers who want Windows and Linux solutions. Additionally, Microsoft will distribute coupons for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server maintenance and support, so that customers can benefit from the use of an interoperable version of Linux with patent coverage as well as the collaborative work between the two companies.

This tacitly recognises the validity of Microsoft's software patents, and strengthens the latter's hand when dealing with other players in the open source world. Those patent problems have been exacerbated by the Mono project, “an open source, cross-platform, implementation of C# and the CLR that is binary compatible with Microsoft.NET”, which is sponsored by Novell, and led by Miguel de Icaza, who is employed by Novell.

As the Mono FAQ explains:

The core of the .NET Framework, and what has been patented by Microsoft falls under the ECMA/ISO submission.

Microsoft has announced (http://port25.technet.com/archive/2009/07/06/the-ecma-c-and-cli-standards.aspx) that the ECMA standards for C# and the CLI are covered under the Community Promise (http://www.microsoft.com/interop/cp/default.mspx) patent license.

Basically a grant is given to anyone who want to implement those components for free and for any purpose.

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