SUSE Studio - Mix it up


Updated: August 26, 2017

It's been a long time since I played with SUSE Studio. Eight years to be exact. That's a fairly hefty stretch of time, which means another review is due. Before you ask, no it's not a German alternative rock band, nor a night club. And yes, it is an online portal that lets you create custom SUSE images. Very clever.

In my original review, I focused on the simplicity and difficulty of use of the portal, assembling different packages into a working image, the testing, and the complexity of this whole deal. I built on my earlier experience with Kiwi and then Product Creator, and back in 2009, this was an amazing, revolutionary concept. Let's see what gives now.

Teaser

Pump the jam

The familiar interface is there. The website has been revamped a little, there are more login features and options, and you can associate other services with the Studio, but in essence, it's the same tool from 2009, with some extra functionality.

Portal

Create your own image

Now, the tricky part. Can ordinary people use this easily? I started my image creation journey. I opted for an openSUSE 42.1 Leap image as my baseline, and it is only available in the 64-bit flavor. Anyway, the initial steps are simple and easy and encouraging. But we've only just begun. Please narrate this Yuri's style (Command & Conquer).

Main

Choose template

Start

Software

This is the most complex and life-consuming step. Software. Here, you need to configure your build, but it is not as trivial as it sounds. First, you can add extra repositories, which can help you pimp up SUSE with proprietary stuff that you do not normally get. But you really need to know what you're doing.

Repos

Add repo

Added repos

Additional packages

A much more frustrating step is to choose the packages you need for your image. There are several ways about this - software groups, categories, general search, and recommended stuff. Colorful and maybe a little bit intimidating.

Software options

Whichever you choose, you will have a very long list of available options, and some fairly scarce information to guide you. The best bet for whether you need something is the popularity ranking. I was also surprised that a lot of the expected, common stuff, even things like Firefox or KMail, are not included by default, and this makes for a rather tedious exercise.

You cannot add more than 200 packages at once, so you really need to go through the list, page by page, searching for those hot cakes you'd want in your distro. In the end, it comes down to patience, and the way the data is presented, you won't have much. A more elegant solution would be bundle templates, which offer certain software profiles out of the box. For instance, a media profile automatically adds all the different codecs, several media players, and such. Alas, no such option exists.

Recommendations

Search for software

I watched the time bleed off my Kubuntu's digital clock as I fought with the packages, trying to make my distro look nice and elegant, the way I'd expect a finished product to behave. But the more I was browsing through the software selections, the more alarmed I was. I had to manually add YaST components, printing utilities, and so forth. Why. This is such a waste of time.

Adding software and getting lost

Other configurations

The rest is easy. Fast. Personalization, startup options (runlevel), users and their passwords, and several other tweaks. The easy part after the software choice torment. Well, you can also add support for Xen, VMware and also include UEFI drivers. Sounds like a neat thing. Anyway, read through, choose your settings.

Personalize

Desktop config

Build image & Testdrive

Now, the really interesting part, the one we've been waiting for. SUSE Studio lets you build several types of images, including USB/Hard disk image, Live ISO, virtual machine images across other products, EC2 images, and still more. Looks interesting.

Build

I decided to start with a hard disk image. The actual configuration took about 10 minutes. Then, once it's built, you can download it - or more importantly, testdrive the image - so you can actually see whether your output works as expected before you download it. This should save you time and bandwidth.

Image built

I tried to boot the image, and I did see the boot menu, but then it failed. I guess my swap configuration was just wrong - I accidentally typed in a 2MB swap, but then I would expect the wizard to auto-protect against silly mistakes.

Testdrive, boot menu

Boot error

Also, the online console is not without faults - slow, buggy, and it uses Flash, plus it does not work in Google Chrome. If you already have a testdrive open, you cannot use the same one in another session, and you have a very decent one hour to complete the testing. No encryption, so you should use SSH, but that actually means an image that runs. Catch-22 in a way. VNC connectivity is also available and fairly straightforward, so that can be an alternative if Flash or the console disappoint you.

Chrome not supported

I then built a second image - like the first, but with a correct swap config, and it did not boot at all. I didn't even see a GRUB menu. The third image, that was a VMDK, and this one actually worked. Yes. I could see my desktop - with the wrong wallpaper - but at least VLC was there, so the Studio did something well.

Appliance boots

Appliance works

I then downloaded the image and went about testing it in both VirtualBox and VMware Player. In both cases, it booted fine, but only with a measly 800x600px resolution, and no auto-detection of the virtualized environment. This just shows that my image is not complete, and that it's missing some rather important components.

VM booting

VM booted

Problems with the image

Now, at this point, I tried to use my image. Some of the added repos could not be used, they were corrupt for an odd reason. I tried to install VirtualBox guest additions, but hit a problem with sources and headers, which is quite annoying. No matter, YMP one-click installs then. Nope. The system did not recognize these as valid archives to use through YaST. I was missing all sorts of tiny but important dependencies, which you'd never dream of adding yourself, and they should be added to the built images, just in case. Except this is not the case, and you're on your own. Enjoying SUSE images becomes a boring and pointless exercise in building a distro like some 17th century smith.

Conclusion

In the time it took me to build my SUSE image, which in the end turned out to be a pretty dud, I could have downloaded, installed and customized any which distro, added new software through a simple and convenient package manager, and still had more freedom and elegance than my custom-built Studio monstrosity. Looking back at the 2009 efforts, little has changed since. This is not a good thing, because as a product, SUSE Studio has not benefited from any significant usability improvements in the elapsed period.

SUSE Studio is a decent idea, a wicked concept, but the execution is still far from a pure plug-n-play utility. It's a test platform, but it does not offer the necessary level of predictive intelligence to be valuable enough as a replacement to in-vivo distro tweaks. I'd expect a Studio image to contain all the build tools by default, to satisfy all the needed dependencies on its own, to contain zero errors, and to prevent the user from making any change that would make it non-bootable. The steps in between also need to be faster, smoother, more elegant. I do not want to manually click through 100+ packages. That's not what humans are meant to do.

In the end, you will need huge amounts of effort and colossal piles of trial and error before you can build a really nice SUSE image. But then, you will still struggle with repos and codecs and all those other issues I've reported in my Leap review. And so, I am far less enthusiastic than I used to be. Back then, this was a sci-fi thing of sweet magic. Now, it's a clunky and slow image frankenopolis, and while it does work, it's nowhere near the levels of professionalism that I have come to expect from SUSE. Hopefully, Studio 2.0 will arrive sometime in the future, and that will be my beat. We're done here.

Cheers.

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