SUSE against the tide

SuSE was founded in Nuremberg, Germany in 1992 when the Linux kernel was still almost new. by Hubert Mantel, Burchard Steinbild, Roland Dyroff and Thomas Fehr, with the objective of distributing Slackware (based on the earlier SLS Linux from Soft Landing Systems), in sets of 40 floppies, translated into German, with the approval of Patrik Volkerding, the guiding light and sole developer of Slackware.

The SuSE organisation began life as Gesellschaft für Software-und Systementwicklung mbH, which later became Software und System Entwicklung (Software and System Development), from which sprang the friendly acronym SuSE. SuSE's own distinctive version of Linux came into being with the absorption of Florian LaRoche’s Jurix Linux and the development of the SuSE installer YaST in 1995, and but for a mild stutter after the collapse of the NASDAQ, has never looked back since. SuSE became the favoured distribution of Linux in Germany, and Germany was the country with the fastest uptake of Linux in Europe. By the late 90s SuSE had opened offices in the UK, Italy, the Czech Republic, and the United States, and was second only to Red Hat in popularity among the growing community of Linux users.

Quick, not slick

There was always something endearing about SuSE Linux. Maybe it was the artless lizard (or is it a chameleon?) that is the SuSE logo, mascot, and general good luck charm that goes by name of ‘Geeko’, earnest and likeable with a kink in its tail, but definitely not slick. SuSE was always more businesslike and thorough than stylish in its choices, although this gave it a distinctive style of its own, unadorned and utilitarian, like the Lloyds building, where all the mechanical parts, pipes, lifts and escalators are visible on the outside wall.

Maybe it was that, even in the latter years of its independence, even a minimum install of a home version of SuSE Linux always entailed crouching over your CD-ROM drive waiting to eject and load an endless succession of CDs, as if the SuSE engineers were nostalgic for the good old days when a Linux installation came on a large pile of floppies. And however bare and tidy you thought your desktop was, one of those disks had always gone missing...

Or maybe it was that SuSE was Linux with a girl's name, although the correct pronounciation was something closer to a Brummie saying “buzzer”, (think Ozzie Osbourne), or an Ulsterman saying “user”, or as in Sousa, the late 19th century composer of music for marching bands, the Wurlitzer and the fairground.

Or maybe it’s because SuSE Linux always came with endless options that you could easily tailor and configure to your own particular preferences. What was truly impressive about most things SuSE was the thoroughness and attention to detail. If you weren't happy with one way of doing things SuSE provided you with the possibility of at least three other ways to get there. Just fire up YaST, throw in a CD, and there it was - with a message entreating you to "Have fun".

Or maybe it was that from the beginning, the manual, like the logo, was so compelling, hundreds of pages filled with hard facts covering areas of Linux that the light had never seen before, and then they gave you more. Old SuSE manuals are still a perfect resource for finding your way around your system when there is some command that you have lost or forgotten.

On the downside, SuSE, unlike other popular distributions of GNU/Linux, didn't provide a freely downloadable version. This was because SuSE included proprietary add-ons, and YaST, SuSE's install manager, did not come with a free software license. SuSE could only be bought in a box, which went against the spirit, if not the law, of the emergent Linux community. But SuSE escaped the sanctions that others encountered, because it always gave back to the community.

This little piggy

As for all Linux distributions, things changed for SuSE during the dotcom boom of the late nineties. Linux was the obvious choice for startups, and SuSE came close behind Red Hat as the most popular commercial implementation of Linux. SuSE was liked for its thoroughness and dependability - and its lustre gained a bit of lick and polish with every new release.

SuSE employed kernel developers, such as Andrea Arcangeli, Andreas Jaeger and Dave Jones, and made key contributions to all sides of GNU/Linux, including the KDE and GNOME desktops, and the less romantic aspects of server and driver support. SuSE was adopted by IBM as one of three versions of GNU/Linux favoured for its smorgasbord of Linux server systems. The others were Red Hat Linux and TurboLinux. TurboLinux was adopted by IBM because of its popularity in the Far East, and SuSE for its popularity in Europe. The omission of Caldera may have been a factor in SCO's later march into litigation against IBM - although rational explanations are not always easy to come by when trying to fathom the reasons for SCO's ineluctable enthusiasm for the law - a predilection which brought it nothing but embarrassment, reversal and pain.

Like Red Hat and Caldera, SuSE was rumoured to be in desperate need of an IPO or a friendly investor to fund its growth into the enterprise market. Red Hat was valued at an extraordinary $6 billion on its IPO, and Caldera (later to become The SCO Group) at a less fulsome $1 billion. The dotcom boom gave rise to many popular delusions. Every upstart company that had dotcom at the end of its name had money thrown at it. The NASDAQ provided an example that the god of markets has no monopoly on wisdom, benificence or common sense, and when the crunch came, collapsed, taking many hopes with it.

The capital moment for SuSE had passed. But three years later everything changed. Novell, the network company of the 80s, jumped in and bought the company, assisted by a loan from IBM.

A new beginning

Since its heyday in the 80s Novell had fallen into a relatively sedate and gentle decline. There had been a couple of bumps - the gesture towards becoming a Unix company in the early 90s, the failure to compete for developers with Windows NT, and the strange acquisition and subsequent offloading, for a fraction of the cost price, of WordPerfect. Novell held onto a diminishing market, primarily in the public sector, still a billion dollar company, but a shadow of its former self. Novell had been there, climbed the mountain and come down the other side, and was beginning to struggle. Linux was seen as an opportunity for Novell to re-invent itself as a young and energetic "open source" company with a new platform for its expertise in networking technologies.

Novell's interest in Linux began with the purchase of Ximian in 2003. Some three months after the purchase of Ximian, Novell purchased SuSE. This was an eventful year for Novell and for Linux. During the summer The SCO Group initated its slightly farcical and utlimately fateful raid on the ownership and authorship of Linux. The code of GNU/Linux, SCO claimed, had been stolen from UNIX, (the rights to which SCO claimed to own), by IBM and others. SCO's claims were based on its purchase of certain rights to UNIX from Novell, which in turn had purchased the rights from AT&T.

Almost immediately there was an unexpected and impassioned intervention on IBM's behalf from Novell's (then) CEO, Jack Messman.

Messman, in the words of Novell's press release, "challenged SCO's assertion that it owns the copyrights and patents to UNIX System V, pointing out that the asset purchase agreement entered into between Novell and SCO in 1995 did not transfer these rights to SCO", and demanded that SCO produce "facts to back up its assertion that certain UNIX System V code has been copied into Linux."

Thus began the long dissolution of SCO's claims to the ownership of Linux.

Wake up, little Suse

Novell's purchase of SuSE paid immediate marketing dividends. Novell, which had been, for so long, so far behind the times, could now legitimately claim to be ahead of the times. Linux was the new hope for many parts of the computer industry, and Novell was up there, in the driver's cab, pulling the industry behind.

The revolution began in earnest. SuSE was rebranded Novell SUSE (in capital letters). YaST, the SUSE installer, was released under a free software license. SUSE Linux was made available in three different forms, openSUSE, a freely downloadable bleeding edge community distribution (which was a first for SUSE), SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) and SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop). OpenSUSE parallels the Red Hat supported Fedora distribution, and SLES and SLED are sold with enterprise support. Considerable energies were devoted to making Linux commercially acceptable, with significant contributions to GNOME, KDE, device driver support, OpenOffice and virtualisation.

Linux didn't bring immediate financial reward to Novell, but the Linux share of the market has grown rapidly, and there have been significant gains for Novell SUSE, not least of which was the remarkable (and under-reported) win of 20,000 Linux desktops and 2500 servers at Peugeot/Citreon, which is still the largest deployment of the Linux desktop, and, many believe, just the first of many.

A backward step

At the same time, Novell has played a major part in the legal actions between SCO and IBM, in support of IBM's case, and as a key distributor of Linux, but the 2006 patent and licensing agreement between Novell and Microsoft, which followed Messman's replacement as CEO of Novell has obscured much of this, and has clouded the issues.

To casual observers the Microsoft/Novell deal, which includes interoperability and patent indemnification agreements, may seem standard fare for the industry. But it has far greater significance for the Linux and free software community because of the hostage to fortune it offers in the shape of patent indemnity, and the appearance of credibility it has leant to Microsoft's often re-iterated, never substantiated, and highly contentious, claims of patent infringements in the Linux kernel. (It also conflicts with the terms of the latest version of the GPL).

"...The surprising aspect of the Microsoft/Novell agreement is that Novell was foolish enough to fall into the trap that Microsoft set for it, to induce somebody involved with Linux to take a license, so that Steve Ballmer could then go off to the press, and say 'See I told you there were concerns. Why else would they have taken this license?'" Mark Webbink, then the legal counsel for Red Hat, said at the time.

This matters, not just because of the material disadvantage the agreement has given to future disputes involving free and open source software, but because it suggests that short term corporate advantage is more important to Novell than the wishes of the larger community of users and developers that have made the product possible in the first place.

Just as surprising as the agreement itself was the enthusiastic participation and defence of the agreement by the developers Novell inherited from Ximian. This enthusiasm was not unconnected to Ximian's committment to Mono, its own free software implementation of the .Net framework, (which is heavily implicated in future GNOME development), and the fear of many that parts of the Mono implementation may turn out to be patent encumbered, or that support will be compromised in other ways. The participation of Novell's corporate wonks in such an agreement could feasibly be excused on the grounds of ignorance or indifference. It is perhaps less easy to understand the enthusiasm of the participating free software developers.

Novell claims that the agreement has brought significant advantages to Linux and Novell, which is beginning to show healthy returns on its Linux business. It may also have brought significant damage to SUSE's long term place in the affections of the community...

Richard Hillesley


Nice History Lesson

I enjoyed the article. All I knew about SUSE comes after the point Novell bought it.
Nice history lesson.

Factual Errors

SuSE did have a download version, and was installable over the net.

You could also copy YaST, but it was not a FOSS license because you could not sell it. Thus it was in same class as widely used software like afio, at least according to a RedHat in a recent blog article, well reported.

The Cheap disk copiers, could not however re-distribute SuSE, because they charged a fee for their services.

The retail version, also include bundled commercial applications, like Star Office before it became Open Office and GPL.

Finally the multiple CD's became a thing of the past, at around 7.1, they released in a convenient wallet complete with DVD. I think that was the first 2.4.0 version, and I remember the rush pre-christmas to get a DVD / CD-RW in time for the release, and get my hands on 2.4, with it's major improvements like fine grained SMP, journalled filesystem (reiserfs) and other 'hotness' like devfs and a new VM (sic).

OH, well

I lost interest right after the gaff in your Geography. Check Republic? Didn't study much? How about Czech Republic? After that the article is just a rehash of history. You don't have to like SUSE. No one is forcing you.


I think you meant to write "Czech republic".

Re: typo

he he he

Apologies. This embarrassing error has now been fixed

A minor correction

A nice article. A minor correction; it's the Czech Republic, not Check.

A few observations

1. Though Novell bought Ximian in August 2003 and SuSE three months, it is unlikely that it would not have decided on the SuSE purchase before buying Ximian. Which company would buy an outfit selling a commercial Linux desktop without having a Linux distribution among its products in order to sell that desktop?

2. "...appearance of credibility it has leant to Microsoft's..." The word should be lent, not leant.

3. Are you sure about these dates? When I interviewed Patrick Volkerding in 2002, he told me that he had started Slackware in early 1993 to sell a version of Soft Landing System Linux which, at the time, was the only existing commercial distribution. Thus SuSE, which kicked off in 1992, could not have been trying to distribute Slackware as it did not exist at the time. Patrick's interview is here.

4. And, finally, the name is Patrick Volkerding - not Patrik Volderding.

Sam Varghese

Re: A few observations

1. If my memory serves me well, and there are no guarantees, I'm pretty sure the announcement of the Ximian purchase preceded the purchase of SuSE - but as you suggest, the decision had probably been made beforehand.
3. I'll concede the timeline is based on old notes and memory. There may have been some memory slippage :-) I'm happy to be corrected.

- Richard Hillesley

The Slackware Date Point

I have a vague memory of the first SuSE being based on a different distro at first, one that's been long forgotten (even by me :) ).

So I think the Slackware influence, and which got SuSE describewd as Slack based, was the distro merge which got mentioned.

I think Novell Open Audio has an interview with Herr Mantel, and he talks about the early days there, though I might be recollecting wrongly, and it could be in an article somewhere on SuSE related site, that provides the most plausible details, that hang together from dateline point of view.

Tough my first SuSE install

Tough my first SuSE install was after the switch
to Slackware, IIRC their first set of floppies was
based on Yggdrasil:

Its easy to avoid SUSE and not miss it at all

Nice recap.

Like many Linux geeks, Im a distro whore.
Always trying a new one, fiddling with it to see whats new.

I decided to stop using SUSE since their helping Microsoft's extortion scheme ends up screwing non-hobbyist developers like myself and havent missed it a bit.
(I know, I know, Linspire and Xandros also signed the extortion deal but cmon, who has ever used those because their good?)

Between that and Miguel obsession with infecting us with mono makes trusting Novell impossible.

Opportunity to look back

Thanks for a nicely written bit of history, Richard. While my first production Linux server was Red Hat in 1998, I soon switched to SuSE, and deployed it exclusively until around 2004. The boxes of the various versions, and the shelves of accompanying manuals, all in order, were somehow comforting - it was only a year or so ago that I donated them to a college, where the historical aspect might be of some value.

You forgot to add, though, that it was always best to avoid a dot-1 release of each SuSE version. Somehow it was always buggier than the .0 and .2 releases.

You also forgot to add that, in the UK, you could speak to personable people regarding future plans etc. Sally Donahoe and Roger Whittaker come to mind, and they were helpful when it came to setting strategies.

I felt all that was lost immediately after the Novell takeover, where the internal conflict between Free software and the old NOvell proprietary stack was evident. They kept talking about no difference between the Linux kernel and the old Netware kernel, and I felt that the whole point of it was that there was a difference, though they felt they had to protect their dwindling Netware customer base. They also behaved as though they had just invented Linux, and those of us using it and SuSE for years felt as though we were suddenly talking to young students heavy on theory but light on experience.

Thankfully, for me, Debian especially in the form of Ubuntu stepped in beautifully to fill the void, and also made updates less of a risk than we became used to with rpm.

Ahhh, lovely reminiscing at this time of year.

Stevan Lockhart

Suse has never been my

Suse has never been my favorite, but I had used it from time to time. It was a great OS until Novell purchased it. But after that deal with MS I've never touched it since, and never will. I'd rather stick with Linux OS's that stand firm behind Foss, opensource. And it wasn't even just the deal itself, it was the implications, the danger that it put the rest of the Linux community in, and all Novell seen was MS $$$. No more MS Suse Linux.

A word of common sense, perhaps?

"A great OS until Novell bought it"! A superb example of someone not knowing what they're talking about. This must have been what MS wanted, and pack of stubborn anti-novell trolls that don't know anything about Novell except that it's "bad" .

You mean to tell me that the pre-Novell SuSE, with it's closed beta testing, and no public ISOs for download until the boxed pay-for variety had been on shelves for a while, and it's completely non-community focus, was a "great OS" by your standards? Until Novell came along, and gave SUSE an infrastructure and sponsored a completely open community project that became openSUSE? Now that you can take part in every aspect of this community driven distro, and even elp build it with openSUSE Build Service, it's no longer the "great OS" it used to be?

By that standard, you must prefer a exclusive, as-close-to-proprietary-as-possible SuSE, running against the FOOS grain through and through.

Which makes your complaint about MS moot.

The fact is, SuSE was never "open" until Novel came onto the scene. This is openSUSE.

And again, the Novell-MS deal has nothing to do with openSUSE. I can't believe how many times I hear people speak of openSUSE as though it's somehow linked with MS. Even those who are not fanaticly against Novell seem to think that somehow openSUSE integrates better with Windows networks because of the deal, or that openSUSE can legally use non-free codecs or other software because of the agreement. It has nothing to do with that. Novell's deal with MS only concerns *Novells own enterprise SUSE products*! NOT openSUSE! Nothing changed as far as openSUSE is concerned.

True, Novell's SUSE is based on openSUSE. So? SuSE was originally based on Slackware. Do we boycott them too?

And this is my favorite part. Those who avoid openSUSE because of it's association with Novell MUST ALSO AVOID THE LINUX KERNEL ITSELF (not to mention countless other FOSS projects). Novells devs are some of the most active contributors to the Linux kernel. is running on NOVELL CODE! How's that for irony (unless they happen to be running on Windows Server. That'd be fitting, eh?)?

But have it your way. If it brings you pleasure to spread FUD and running screaming and yelling from just another linux distro, go right ahead. Just be consistent. Don't use linux at all. I think BSD is Novell free currently.

Have a lot of fun!

How to pronounce SuSE

"...or as in Sousa, the late 19th century composer of music for marching bands, the Wurlitzer and the fairground."

Uh, John Phillip Sousa died in 1932 and was active as both a band leader and composer right up to the moment of his death. So referring to him as a late 19th century composer is incorrect.

Also, his music wasn't just for marching bands. Indeed, his own band mostly gave concerts while stationary. Lastly, nothing Sousa composed was written for theater organs or county fairs. His efforts were directed toward what we would, today, call a concert band.

I hope your research into SuSE was more thorough than that into Sousa.



Sousa was born in 1854.

Sousa is famous for his marching tunes. In the popular idiom, in the UK at least, Sousa's tunes are most frequently associated with marching bands (featuring predominantly brass instruments), Wurlitzer rolls, and fairground rides - in fact, I remember first looking up Sousa's name years ago after finding him referenced as the writer of fairground tunes in a story by Dylan Thomas. Maybe this wasn't Sousa's idea of himself, but it is how his music is frequently remembered. I stand by that.

- Richard

Nice Article

Aside from the few corrections already made, this article was excellent. I was a true Novell advocate late 80's early 90's hoping they could stop the M$ machine, and was a big promoter of SuSE on the desktop. That is right up until they signed their corporate integrity away with 'the deal'. Now I am choosing Ubuntu/Debian and Fedora and am happier than ever without the Gecko, though I will always hope they do the right thing someday.


It's 'citroen', or still better: it is 'citroën'

great article BTW

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