Free Agent: New Linuxes, Old Problems

I have had a frustrating few weeks with Linux. I've lost count of the number of installations I've done, and I don't want to think about the number of hours I've lost to troubleshooting. I'm used to having a far happier, far more productive relationship with my Linux boxes.

Two forces in particular have conspired lately to make my computing life hell: First is the fact that I've been working with distributions I'm not very familiar with; second, I need to work with the Windows network here at PC World HQ. I've done a lot of hitting my head against the wall, meeting with some success and some failure. Now it's the time of the month when I get to tell you all about it, in the hope that you might save yourself some head banging of your own.

First Up: SuSE 9.2

One set of problems began when I gave SuSE Linux Professional 9.2 a test drive. SuSE is the venerable German distribution that is now owned by Novell. Historically, SuSE has been very KDE-centric; but that's beginning to change, given that Novell also owns Ximian, the company that employs the bulk of the Gnome desktop's brain trust. I was keen to see how well Gnome 2.6 works in SuSE 9.2, and also wanted to reacquaint myself with the distro in general.

SuSE's installation and configuration program, YAST2 ("Yet Another Setup Tool" 2), is the most flexible and powerful Linux setup routine I've ever seen. It looks like a million bucks, too. Newbies, however, should beware: This is not the type of stripped-down, four-click installation you find with Xandros Desktop, but a multifaceted, lengthier process that allows a power user to tweak all sorts of key system settings before the OS boots for the first time. Longtime Linux users will find the "include all -devel packages" option especially helpful: Selecting this option ensures that all the code libraries necessary to compile fresh software will be installed on the system, saving you the time and trouble of hunting them down yourself. Nifty.

Installation takes a good long while: SuSE comes on five CDs, and it tends to install far more packages than your average distribution. I added to my wait by opting to install both the KDE and Gnome desktops.

A Promising Start With KDE

SuSE's KDE desktop: Not the rolling hills of Windows XP, but bucolic enough.
SuSE's KDE desktop: Not the rolling hills of Windows XP, but bucolic enough.
Logging in to SuSE's KDE 3.3.0 was shocking--in a good way. I usually can't stand the look-and-feel of KDE; as I've copped to in this space many times before, I'm a Gnome man. But SuSE's got a KDE desktop that I could settle down in: nice bright icons, beautiful fonts, a very well-organized start menu. I clicked the "Network Browsing" icon on the desktop and was delighted to discover that, after supplying a network name and password, I could browse the machines on PC World's Windows network. Great! Now, would everything be as peachy on the Gnome side of the system?

Alas, no. Logging in to Gnome 2.6.0, I found no way to access the network. The familiar "Browse Filesystem" and "Network Servers" selections that are a staple of any healthy Gnome start menu were missing. Being a savvy Gnome user, I know that the brute force way to access the network in this case is to open a terminal window, type nautilus --browser and enter network:/// in the resulting Nautilus window. So I gave that a shot--and lo, there appeared a "Windows Network" icon. But double-clicking it just led to a series of blank windows and unhelpful error messages. Nuts.

SuSE's Gnome provides a Help menu at the top of the screen, so I clicked there and selected User's Manual. Oddly, the KDE Help Center launched, displaying a "Gnome 2.6 User Guide" that I've not seen in the Fedora or Mandrake versions of Gnome 2.6 I'm familiar with. I poked around that document a bit, and it told me that I should be able to find a "Windows Network" icon in the "Computer" folder on the Gnome desktop. It wasn't there.

Welcome to Troubleshooting Hell

Logging back in to KDE, I decided to try to tweak the configuration so that I wouldn't have to enter my user name and password every time I opened a network share (a folder whose owner, or a network administrator, has authorized access to by other computers on a Windows network). Firing up the KDE Control Center, I found four separate areas where interaction with Windows networks is controlled. I've complained about the KDE Control Center before, but never have I seen it so overgrown and scary as on a SuSE box.

See, YAST2, the setup program I told you about, also functions as a system configuration tool; and the SuSE team has integrated YAST2 components into the KDE Control Center. So in addition to the standard bevy of KDE configuration applets, you've got YAST2's applets thrown in for good measure. This is how you end up with a Control Center featuring four competing modules that control Samba, the part of the system that talks to a Windows network.

I tweaked the settings in a way that I thought would give me what I wanted--but instead, I found myself frozen out of the Windows network. KDE kept responding with an error dialog stating that no network shares could be found. So I reverted back to the settings that had worked--and remained unable to browse the network.

Just to be clear: Network access had been working. I changed three settings; it stopped working. I changed them right back, but that didn't solve the problem. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now in troubleshooting mode. And I'd forgotten how difficult that can be when you're working with an unfamiliar distribution.

YAST2 as seen from SuSE's Gnome desktop. On the KDE side of the system, YAST2 is integrated with the KDE Control Center.
YAST2 as seen from SuSE's Gnome desktop. On the KDE side of the system, YAST2 is integrated with the KDE Control Center.
Every distribution has a different approach to system configuration. If something at the system level is broken--if there's something to be fixed that requires the root user to take some action--your plan of attack is different depending on what distro you're running. Fedora has its stable of system-configuration-* tools; Mandrake has the Mandrakelinux Control Center; SuSE has YAST2; and so on. And some distributions (cough cough Sun Java Desktop cough) provide very little in the way of GUI-based system configuration, instead expecting you to simply drop to a command line for a treasure hunt through the /etc branch of your file system, where hundreds of plain-text config files slink around in the dark. This approach can be confusing even for a Linux pro, as the location of various important files in /etc can vary from distro to distro.

I'm telling you all this so I don't sound like a complete fool when I say that, as of this writing, KDE still can't Samba on my SuSE box. I've only begun poking around under the hood to find out what broke when I changed three settings in the Control Center. Perhaps I've have a eureka! moment, perhaps not. Perhaps I'll be a complete weenie and end up reinstalling the whole thing. Perhaps by the time I get around to that, it'll be time to try yet another new version of yet another distribution.

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