Thursday, August 27, 2009

Customize SUSE Linux to the Bones with SUSE Studio

With hundreds of different distributions, each targeting various niches and users, Linux is undoubtedly a very prolific kernel. Being the distro hoppers that I'm sure you are, finding a Linux operating system that could fill almost all your computing needs is the obvious goal.

Many feel that they could create a better distro, but few have the skills (or time) necessary to put their ideas into practice. Sure enough, there are some Linuxes out there that let you create "remasters", but what if you would be able to do all the configuration online, in several quick, easy steps and then download your very own, highly customized distro to the HDD or share it with the world? And most importantly, other than some general Linux knowledge, you basically don't need any other real skills. But enough with the introduction.

Coming from Novell, SUSE Studio is the name of this interesting new project. Before getting too excited, I should tell you that you will build on top of a SUSE OS, be it OpenSUSE or SUSE Linux Enterprise, so don't think that you can take Ubuntu, mix it with a teaspoon of Fedora and spice it up with a bit of Slackware. Regardless, this is the easiest way to create a personalized, yet stable and powerful, Linux.




The first thing you need to do is create an account, ask for an invitation and pray that it will get approved as soon as possible. Once that's accomplished, you can start building the distro/appliance. Step 1: choose the base template, ranging from the micro JeOS, all the way to a full-blown KDE 4 environment. KDE 3, GNOME and IceWM are the other options. 64-bit processors are more and more widespread, so you'll be happy to see support for the superior architecture. Naming your "baby" is the last step on the first page.




The software selection area displays all the available software in OpenSUSE's 11.1 repositories. You will find almost everything you need in there, and if you don't, you can add third-party repositories and even upload RPM packages to be installed on your system. Cool! On the left-hand side of the screen, you have the current state of your Live CD/DVD: total packages selected, used space and download size. This last one is the most important as you will know when you get over the 700 MB CD ISO limit. If you're lost and don't know what software to choose, you can check the "Always install recommended software" box in the recommended category. In my case, I ended up with a 1.01 GB DVD image. There's also a handy search function, enabling you to find specific applications throughout the repositories.



The "General" configuration tab allows you to enable the firewall, configure the network, create users, set passwords or choose the timezone. Next, upload your favorite logo and choose backgrounds for boot, loading and login screens to really make it your own. At this point, I was starting to feel like I was in a Role Playing Game, creating my mighty character. :)



Reading EULAs (End user license agreements) is one of my favorite past-times ever and, upon discovering that SUSE Studio lets me create one from scratch, I became euphoric. OK, I am obviously joking. I have never read an EULA in my life (and neither did you, don't judge me!), but yes, SUSE Studio gives you the ability to add one in your distro. For server functionality, configuring a MySQL database would be the next step. I skipped it altogether, to then find myself inside the "Desktop" tab. Not much to do here, except opt for automatic login for one of the users and, if necessary, add autostart programs. Beware though, you will have to know the command for launching each program. Usually, it's dead simple, like for Pidgin, the command is simply pidgin, or for Firefox... firefox.



If you're creating a virtual appliance or a disk image for VirtualBox, you can set the RAM and Virtual Disk sizes in the The "Storage & memory" screen. If you just want the ISO, don't bother with these settings. The same goes for the "Scripts" section; unless you know what you're doing, just move along.


But say you also want your most important documents to be copied over to a fresh install of your new distro. Easy as pie! The "Overlay files" tab lets you upload single files to specified directories, that will appear in your installation. If you have a folder, simply create an archive out of it, and SUSE Studio will extract it during the installation process.



Finally, select the format of your distro/appliance and click "Build". My 1.01 GB DVD ISO was complete and ready for download after 45 minutes. Three hours later (sucky servers + sucky Internet connection = 1 GB in 3 hours) I successfully booted the OS into VirtualBox. All my favorite applications were there, Pidgin popped up at start-up and my cat (Pinky's the name) earned his geek bragging rights for the day by appearing on the login screen of a Linux distro. Oh, if you choose to create a disk image, you can "Testdrive" the OS right from inside the browser. Awesome, awesome stuff.

The End

SUSE Studio is great in many respects, but especially if you need to deploy a customized desktop or server on multiple machines. Configure it once, use it as many times as you need. Sure, if you don't like SUSE, you won't like the custom distro either. I'm not much of a fan myself, but I do find the whole idea interesting and, more importantly, useful.

Apply for an account right here.

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