Thursday, May 1, 2014

Windows XP end of life, is openSUSE Linux the right choice?

Since Microsoft announced Windows XP end of service, +Linux  and Free Software enthusiasts have been dancing a celebratory jig and promoting Linux as the preferred upgrade path. Though a user can continue to use XP, Microsoft will no longer be releasing any updates to it and it will thus gradually become more insecure than it already was. Microsoft's recommendation is to migrate to Windows 8.1 or buy a new PC. Frankly, most people running XP have computers that are running up to being a decade old seeing as Vista became available late 2006. Linux is a common solution for people wanting to squeeze more life out of an old computer, but is it the right one?

In late 2011 I began working as an independent repair technician and IT consultant. Due to my unusually low prices and geography I typically get people running older hardware. Though I will work on solving issues with various Windows versions, I do attempt to upsell +openSUSE Linux to these clients where possible. I assess the clients needs, then their hardware to assure compatibility with Linux. If all checks out and the client gives me approval I'll migrate their data then install openSUSE and configure it (which usually means checking for known bugs and applying a work around) for immediate use for a fee, including limited support for one release cycle. The point of this story, is that more than most I know the challenges of bringing users from XP to Linux.

So is Linux the right choice for people fleeing Windows XP? Yes and no. Firstly one must assess the clients needs. Many of my clients are students, whom you'd assume would be a great match for Linux. However, many classes absolutely mandate the student have and use Microsoft Office and will be failed or unable to complete a course correctly if they don't. Naturally, such a case means Linux is absolutely out of the question. Another case can be such as musicians or artists whom require specific tools, such as a DAW or +Adobe Photoshop . So these potential users are restricted by their own habits as much as availability of specific software.

Next question would be, which Linux? In the enthusiasm to bring XP users to the fold, I've heard repeatedly that they should all be on +Ubuntu . First problem with that idea is the Unity desktop itself, which has problems on older hardware and won't render correctly thus rendering the computer largely unusable. In my experience with Ubuntu, I've found it's package management to be dismal as it is the only distribution I've used where a routine patch can break X which of course means the new user would be stuck without any sort of graphical interface whatsoever.

Unity is blatantly unsuitable for a new user purely from a compatibility and resource usage standpoint. When I first began migrating users to Linux, I would set them up with +KDE  since it has a very familiar interface with a task bar and 'start menu.' However the instability, bugginess, and immense configurability (which leads to over-complexity) proved to be too much for the new user and too much for me as I was constantly having to support the installation. After dealing with this for a while I decided on GNOME (which was version 2.x then) and migrated my clients to that, which resulted in much happier clients and an almost complete cessation of support calls. Even now, I'm still putting my clients on GNOME 3 which they have trouble with initially due to it's very unfamiliar design philosophy. They quickly adjust to the GNOME Shell, and often come to love it to the point that their ranting brings me more clients. A few clients with exceptionally weak hardware have been placed on +Xfce, and this has not led to any unusual support calls. Another unexpected consequence of KDE is that it was too familiar looking, and I saw users making more attempts to install software designed for Windows or trying to install Linux software by downloading and launching it than I see when they are on other environments.

Ideally, a new user should be able to use their computer as designed without having the system become unusable after an update. A new user also shouldn't be forced into fixing things from a command line early in their experience. This is largely why I use +openSUSE , and give it to my clients.

  • Libzypp is the backend for zypper and YaST package management. This provides (scientifically proven) superior dependency resolution, which of course greatly mitigates the potential for an update or other package operation causing damage to a working system.
  • YaST is our amazing modular setup and configuration tool. It's modular design allows it to give graphical interfaces for many system administration tasks from package management to security auditing and beyond. It also includes an ncurses front end which allows the familiarity and safety of YaST to still be usable from a command line in the event that X is down. On each module it includes a help button, which will offer concise and useful information on what the module does making YaST useful as a learning tool.
  • Snapper is a YaST module for use with the btrfs file system. Snapper allows you to easily check and reverse system changes that are logged and snapshotted as part of btrfs. Btrfs also prevents against data decay. Snapper can easily save the day by swiftly rolling back any destructive changes without the end users having to concern themselves with maintaining backups. See video here!
  • One-Click Install or Direct Install makes finding and installing software easy via our +Open Build Service Package Search. Simply navigate to our software search domain and with only a few clicks YaST will handle everything needed to install the program, including adding any necessary repositories. We even include a search extension for our default browser Firefox which allows you to search for software directly from your search bar.
  • The Installer itself is also a YaST module. Our installer offers a nearly unparalleled reliability and compatibility, and like other YaST modules can be used from its ncurses interface when the graphical installer won't work. Its modular design gives it a superior flexibility and capability versus the installers from other distributions, and this still holds true even in the text based ncurses interface. 
  • Tumbleweed is our rolling release. It offers seamless upgrades to each new version of openSUSE while also giving you the latest stable desktop environment and other packages. Tumbleweed is stable enough for daily usage (especially for any ex-Windows user whom is used to things constantly failing) and will alleviate the headache of an annual release cycle as opposed to the longer release cycles of Windows.
I think my own personal experience, and the preponderance of facts conclusively support the conclusion that openSUSE is an ideal choice for new users, including those coming from Windows XP. I would say though, for myself I won't do it without a fee since it quickly becomes too exhausting. I've also found my clients listen much better when they are paying for service. My clients were originally friends I ran out of patience to do free tech service for.