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Observability / Open Source

SUSE Reconciles openSUSE with SUSE Linux Enterprise

Nov 7th, 2017 2:00am by
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SUSE, the oldest Linux company has a serious challenge.

Canonical has Ubuntu that anyone can run on servers and cloud without paying a dime and easily become a Canonical customer for commercial support. Red Hat has CentOS, which is binary compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and, with some work, does allow customers to ‘migrate’ from CentOS to RHEL.

SUSE, on the other hand, has a massive community-driven openSUSE project but it couldn’t leverage it the way competitors leverage their own projects. SUSE is paying a big price for this disconnect between its commercial package and openSUSE. While SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) enjoys a strong presence in the European market, it doesn’t enjoy the same market share that CentOS and Ubuntu enjoy in cloud and data center. Companies don’t want to use openSUSE as there is no clear path towards commercial support if they need. Developers don’t target openSUSE as there is no clear path towards enterprise workloads.

The sleeping giant is waking up though. As SUSE becomes financially stable under Micro Focus, which acquired the company in 2015,  the company has started to evolve its technologies.

In 2015, openSUSE project restructured its distributions and created two distributions: Leap and Tumbleweed. Tumbleweed, the fully-tested rolling release, became upstream for SLE; in return, Leap is based on SLE and inching itself towards full compatibility with SLE.

In 2016, SUSE announced SUSE CaaS (Container as a Service) Platform to handle containerized workloads. In 2017, the company released a fully open source community driven version of SUSE CaaS Platform called Kubic.

What does 2018 hold for SUSE? “The SUSE Linux Enterprise products family has grown significantly over the last few years,” said Matthias Eckermann, SUSE director product management for SUSE Linux Enterprise, noting that the company also has dedicated distributions for high-availability operations, high-performance computing, desktop computing, and SAP deployments.

What it means is that companies that use CentOS or Ubuntu to cut cost have another enterprise grade option from SUSE world.

Since these products share the same code base, SLE is becoming extremely modular to cater to different use cases. “Different life cycles for package groups are necessary, to be able to answer customer demand with respect to open source technologies, which are developing at a pace faster than the usual life cycle of an enterprise distribution, and where the need of customers and partners is not so much for long-term support, but for a supported solution of a relatively recent version of the technology,” said Eckermann. Examples of fast-moving technologies include PHP, Node.js and even the GCC Gnu compiler collection.

But SUSE needed a better way to unify this modularity. “Providing one install ISO per product first looks right. However, considering that 90 percent or more are identical between [variants], we wondered if there are not better ways to package our products,” said Eckermann.

SUSE is making it easier for customers to use any of these products with a unified installer. When SLE 15 will be released in 2018, it will have a unified installer that will allow customers to install any of the SLE product that they want instead of offering different independent products.

“With the unified installer combined with modularity, we will be able to answer future market demands quicker and with an improved usability than in the past,” added Eckermann.

As SUSE works towards modularity and unified installer they have some challenges they have to overcome. The biggest challenge is the inter-modular dependencies. There are dependencies on a package level, which reach across one or multiple modules. SUSE tried to circumvent this problem at two levels. At the technical level, it solved the issue by defining the modules along logical boundaries. At the user level, the issue was solved by improving the usability of modules compared to former SUSE Linux Enterprise versions.

SUSE’s package and patch management stack, ZYpp, now implements a unified view across all modules, and offers discoverability features like search and find that allows users to work across modules. Going forward, this will also include the SUSE Package Hub (a community maintained package store for SLE customers), so that customers and partners can directly add packages with community support, if needed.

A CentOS for SUSE?

There is an even bigger story waiting in 2018. Since openSUSE Leap is based on SLE, the LEAP 15 will have move SUSE ecosystem towards an Ubuntu-like experience.

Richard Brown, the openSUSE Chairman told us in an interview that with LEAP 15, customers will be able to move between SLE 15 and LEAP 15. In 2018, when SLE 15 and openSUSE LEAP 15 will be released, paying customers will be able to move to free of cost LEAP 15, which will be fully compatible with SLE. At the same time, LEAP 15 users will be able to move to SLE 15.

What it means is that companies that use CentOS or Ubuntu to cut cost have another enterprise-grade option from SUSE world. Users can now run thousands of LEAP instance in virtual machines on Cloud, whether its Azure, AWS or in on-prem servers. Web hosting companies or VPS providers like Linode and Digital Ocean can now use LEAP. If you need commercial support you can very easily move your workloads to SLE. Alternatively, if you think you have in-house skills to manage your SLE deployments, you can move to openSUSE LEAP.

But how different is migration from CentOS to RHEL? How difficult is it? None whatsoever. Both LEAP and SLE are built from Tumbleweed. Both share the same code-base. SLE is literally a subset of the openSUSE community code, so technically there should be no issues going from SUSE Linux Enterprise to openSUSE LEAP. “SUSE will officially support an in-place migration option (both directions!) via its update stack and the SUSE Customer Center,” said Eckermann.

Since nothing goes in SLE without being in Tumbleweed, there is no problem with moving from SLE to LEAP. However, there might be minor issues when a user moves from LEAP to SLE, because the openSUSE community has-many consumer-centric packages that may not be used in the enterprise space. Going from openSUSE to SUSE Linux Enterprise a customer might run into missing packages, but the update stack will flash a red warning around everything looking dubious.

However, thanks to modularity, SUSE is inching closer towards filling the gap what’s available in the community and what’s supported by an Enterprise distribution. On top of that, SLE has SUSE Package Hub, that gets packages through OBS (Open Build Service), which serves the openSUSE users. Brown argues that since it’s all open source and community driven getting a package for Package Hub is very easy.

One may wonder what’s stopping SUSE from adopting the Ubuntu model if both SLE and LEAP are compatible? Independence. Brown detested the idea of just one product to serve both community and commercial customers. When there is no difference between the community project and commercial product, the one who pays the bills calls the shots. openSUSE, while sponsored by SUSE, is a relatively independent community.

“The community gets to decide what we want in openSUSE. Yes, we aim at increasing compatibility with SLE to help our customers but there are things that we do our way. It’s great to see that SUSE is embracing the way we do things, not the other way round, and we want to keep it that way,” said Brown. “We are not interested in a single product, what we are interested in is a symbiotic relationship between Tumbleweed, SLE and LEAP.”

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