making a custom OS – SUSE Studio

SUSE Studio could be one of the most innovative services on Amazon EC2 cloud I have seen, that puts its infrastructure to good use. What else can be said about an online service that builds a custom Operating System and also allows us to test our creation? I had an invite for this service which perhaps I got when I downloaded an evaluation version of SLED 11 sometime back. Anyways, when I used the service recently, I was overwhelmed at its capabilities.

Many old Linux users who have a distinct pattern of PC usage would agree that there are only certain applications they use on a regular basis; other applications that come with the OS image are like extras: ok to have, but not necessary. However, they face a dilemma when they download the ISO image. Should it be a live CD having only 700 MB of packages including the base system, or a full installation DVD of 4.7 gigs? The former would have minimal system but may lack the applications which the user would actually need, so he’ll need to download them separately after OS installation. The latter would contain all the applications needed, also along with it several other apps which wouldn’t be installed but eat up space in the ISO image/ DVD (also causing a much longer download).

SUSE Studio addresses just that. It allows the user to build their own customized OS having exactly the packages they want and nothing else. This drastically reduces the OS image size; for example, if a user is mostly into development and image processing (with maybe some multimedia), the image including base system would be about 1.3 GB. This is more than the CD, but much less than the DVD. It will contain all applications the user needs, so he can start on work right after installing the OS without further delay caused by picking, downloading, and installing individual software.

Package Selection
Package Selection – SUSE Studio

An assumption here is that the user knows at a lower level which applications and libraries he uses (it helps while searching among thousands of packages). However, the packages are well organized into groups and patterns. A not-so-geek user will find no difficulty in customizing the OS by selecting patterns at high level, based on which SUSE Studio will automatically populate the package list. The user starts with a base system template like SLED 10 SP4 KDE3/ openSUSE 11.4 KDE4 which will have the essential packages selected, then he adds other packages of his choice one by one. Obviously, it results in many combinations, but the smart build service selects and resolves all dependencies arising out of this. If a package conflicts, the user is abruptly alerted. Packages can be searched by name based on the repositories selected. The user can select more repositories than those available with official release of the OS as long as they are compatible with the base system, so restricted packages can also be added.

Package Conflicts
General Configuration and Package Conflicts – SUSE Studio (example image showing the red error box)

After the packages are selected, the user can personalize the distribution with bootsplash, logo, etc. and add configuration like network, firewall, timezone, users and groups just as in a real OS installation. Startup options like default runlevel, disk and memory usage for virtual appliance etc. as well as custom user scripts or file archives can also be included. Thus done with customizing the OS, the user now has the option of specifying type of build – VM/ Live CD/ USB HDD image etc. Once kicked off, the build takes roughly an hour for a 1.5 gig image. It can then be downloaded and deployed like an official OS!

But the best part is that before downloading, the user can also “test drive” it. This will launch the OS just created in a cloud environment inside the browser, like a remote virtual appliance. The browser session will remain active for 1 hour, when the user can check if this is the OS he wanted. Satisfied, he can download and install the image; unsatisfied, he can proceed with a new customization. While doing so, he can clone the one he just created or clone one among other OSes which users of SUSE Studio have shared publicly. The studio gives 15 gig of space to each user to play with their customizations, but they warn to delete the builds if older than a week to save space. Configuration files would still remain unless user deletes them, so the same OS can be built anytime later as a subsequent version (there is a version field as well that increments automatically).

Build Page
Build Service – SUSE Studio

One last point that would appeal to veteran users: it is possible to get the good old KDE3 SUSE distribution by selecting a base system as SLED 10 SP4 KDE3. And in future once the dreaded Gnome 3 takes over mainstream distros, our beloved Gnome 2 could still be obtained through openSUSE 11.4 or SLED 11 SP1 base systems. SUSE Studio therefore may be the only other option than Debian to obtain a stable, tested and popular Linux distribution sans the fancy resource-hungry UI elements.


One thought on “making a custom OS – SUSE Studio

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