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Commercial Linux distributor Novell is hoping that the delivery of the first service pack update for its SUSE Linux 11 operating system for servers and desktops will give the software a bump. And not just because SP1 has support for lots of new hardware.

According to Kerry Kim, senior product marketing manager at Novell in charge of its Linux lineup, no matter how good a new version of an operating system is, there are IT shops that simply will not install the code until it gets its first dot release. (Which is why the R2 update for Windows Server 2008 last fall was similarly important for Microsoft.)

While demand has been strong for SUSE Linux 11 since it was announced a year ago, with SUSE Linux 11 ramping up faster than its well-regarded predecessor, SUSE Linux 10 - and helping push Novell's Linux biz to break even earlier this year - Kim says that "a number of folks have been waiting for SP1 to put SUSE 11 into production". And he adds that the strong participation in the SP1 beta program bodes well for the year ahead.

Who knows? Novell could even turn a profit on the Linux business for the first time in seven years. It could happen, if the global economy staggers to a recovery and Novell can compete with Red Hat while maintaining discipline on its support prices.

Novell is rolling out SUSE Linux 11 SP1 at its BrainShare EMEA user and partner conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and is touting the fact that it has the broadest virtualization and hardware support among the big commercial Linuxes. It's a shot at rival Red Hat, which has dropped support for Intel's Itanium processors with the future Enterprise Linux 6 version coming out later this year, and which has backed its own KVM virtualization hypervisor over the Xen hypervisor that both Linux companies struggled to harden and embed in their earlier RHEL 5 and SUSE 10 versions three years ago.

Novell is not saying it will support Itanium and Xen forever, mind you. "We haven't pulled the plug on it," says Kim referring to the Intel chip. "We're going to support Itanium for the near future. And we encourage all of Red Hat's customers who are using Xen to consider us, and the same for those using Red Hat on Itanium."

As for Xen, it is getting the same "near-term" commitment", with Kim explaining that there are "advantages and disadvantages" to both Xen and KVM. A smart-alek from Red Hat would say that the disadvantage to Xen is that it is not part of the Linux kernel stream, and the disadvantage is that Red Hat owns it and Novell does not.

And to be fair, Red Hat will continue to support current and future Itanium processors with its RHEL 5 distro, which will have standard support through March 2014, as El Reg reported exclusively back in December, with extended support available through "selected OEMs" until March 2017. That should get RHEL 5 through the future "Poulson" and "Kittson" Itaniums, but support is not the same thing as love. RHEL 6 will have features in the Linux kernel and in the stack that rides atop it that simply will not be in RHEL 5.

As El Reg reported last week when it caught wind of the impending SP1 release, the rev of the SUSE Linux stack shifts to the Linux 2.6.32 kernel, which brings support for the Xeon 5600 (the integrated AES encryption electronics in particular) and 7500 processors from Intel, the Opteron 4100 and 6100 processors from Advanced Micro Devices, the Power7 and z11 (mainframe) processors from IBM, and the Itanium 9300s from Intel.

Novell says that over 500 new chips, chipsets, storage devices, and networking devices have been enabled in SP1, and adds that it is enhancing its Partner Linux Driver Program to make it easier for hardware providers to ensure that their open and closed source drivers work well with SUSE Linux. This collaboration with the vendors who do closed source drivers does not make Novell popular with the open source community, but then again, neither did the Linux distribution agreement with Microsoft, which has given Novell $340m in revenues (not all of it booked yet) and helped keep it afloat.

Kim says Novell has created new tools to make it easier for hardware makers to create and test drivers to make sure they work as intended with SUSE Linux. Novell wants as many hardware platforms as it can running SUSE Linux, and as many applications certified on it (now numbering over 5,000 across SUSE Linux 9, 10, and 11) because as the number two commercial Linux distro that is far behind Red Hat, Novell has little choice but to go broad to try to go deep.

Novell is also tweaking its support mechanism for SUSE Linux starting with the SP1 release. In the past, as each version or service pack was released, the most current release in any version was the only one that was supported going forward.

Novell has created a general update repository for SUSE Linux 11 which includes the key set of hardware enhancements included in SP1 but backported to the base SUSE Linux 11 distro. This means customers can get some of the key functionality of SP1 without having to move to SP1. Proactive maintenance and the most complete set of enhancements will always come with the most-current release, but this way, there will not be a log jam of customers who then hesitate until they qualify each new release before jumping.

Novell will continue to offer long term support services to backport fixes to earlier releases. SUSE Linux 9, 10, and 11 are all currently supported, and not all features can be backported easily to those earlier releases because of big differences in the Linux kernel.

SUSE Linux SP1 will be available on June 2 for download, and all of the key SUSE variants - SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, Enterprise Desktop, Enterprise High Availability Extension (clustering), Enterprise Point of Service (for retail systems), Enterprise Virtual Machine Driver Pack (drivers that improve the performance of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 virtual guests running atop Xen or KVM embedded in SLES or SLED) - will get updates. SUSE Linux Enterprise Server Real Time was not mentioned in the official list, but the odds favor this also being tweaked.

Novell says that the release notes for SUSE Linux 11 SP1 are posted here, but they have not been updated yet. That link is still pointing to the base SLES 11 notes as El Reg goes to press. ®

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