Think you can make a better fast-booting, Chrome-focused OS than Google? Want to craft a custom Linux system that boots from a USB stick? SUSE Studio gives you 15GB to do exactly that, and you do it all online.
SUSE Studio is what powered the fan-made "Chrome OS" we posted yesterday, which, in that case, was a semi-stripped-down system loaded with the developers' version of Chrome, Google webapp links, and OpenOffice. If speed and cloud computing aren't your bag, you can create a fully functional system with Firefox, 3D graphics and whatever apps you can find installed. Want your system to start up with an AWN dock and Launchy keystroke launcher running? Not a problem.
Even if you don't know all that much about Linux, it's pretty easy to build a system you can boot from a USB stick or live CD/DVD, run inside a virtual machine program, or actually install it — or, heck, even test it out in your web browser.
Here's a basic walkthrough of building a system with SUSE Studio. In this case, we're looking to build a GNOME-based system that would boot fairly quick and use Chrome for most of its functions, and use GNOME-Do as the primary application launcher.
Get an account, choose your desktop
First things first, you'll need to grab an invitation and account from SUSE Studio. While it's invite-only at the moment, I received my invite only 10 minutes after registering and filling out a quick survey that suggested it would boost my invite reply time. Once your invite arrives, you can sign into SUSE Studio with your Google or Yahoo account, or any OpenID provider.
Once you're signed in, head to your "Home" screen and click the "Create new appliance" link in the upper-right. SUSE Studio calls each bootable system you create an "appliance" throughout the process. You'll be asked to choose your "base template", which includes the GNOME and KDE desktops, a Just Enough OS (jeOS) option, and server or command-line-only choices. Most folks will want to lean toward GNOME or KDE setups, as they're the most familiar graphical environments. If you're familiar with Linux enough to know how to build a login manager and desktop from a command line system, though, go ahead and play around — you can't really hurt anything.
Choose your software
This is the real meat and potatoes of creating a system. Click the "Software" tab and check out the packages already going into your system.
Based on your selection of a GNOME desktop, and SUSE Studio assuming you want the Linux basics needed to boot, a few packages and repositories are already installed for you. They're based on a basic installation of OpenSUSE, but you could wipe the slate clean and start over with another RPM-based repository, if you so chose.
If you wanted to add Firefox to your system, simply search for it in the search bar farther down the page. Results from the repositories you've chosen appear, and you can click "Add+" to load them into your system, with dependencies and other needed packages automatically included. What if you don't see something you know runs on Linux — like, say, Google Chrome? Find an RPM-formatted package, like those I found at Ben Kevan's blog, or add in a repository URL that carries regular updates. Generally, a good Google search for the name of your program and "OpenSUSE" should yield fruit. Hit the "Upload and Manage RPMs" link near the top of the Software page, and you'll be able to upload from your computer, or point to a file on the web. What's really neat is, once you upload your RPM files, you'll have a special repository created for you that can be loaded into any system you build with SUSE Studio.
Change the look and feel
Once you're done tinkering with your apps, head over to the Configuration tab to mess with your eye candy and determine how your system will boot up. Start at the "General" sub-section, making sure to change the user name at bottom to something other than "Tux" and change the password away from the standard "linux". You can set how you want your system to find a network connection (anything other than the manual or no-network options should be fine), and whether to enable a firewall.
The personalise section only has two parameters, but who doesn't like to see their own logos and backgrounds stamped on a system? Next over, make sure the "Startup" section has you set to boot into a graphical login. Under "Desktop", you can set the OS to automatically boot to a desktop for faster start-up times, and the "Configuration" field lets those planning to install to a disk or USB drive, or run in a virtual machine, fine-tune their memory and disk use settings. "Overlay files" and "Scripts" can mostly be skipped, unless you've got documents you need to have in your test system or already work at a high level of Linux knowledge.
Grab and boot your OS
The "Build" section is where you get the good stuff. Pick the format you'd like to download, whether an ISO for creating a CD/DVD, a disk image for hard disk or USB transfer, or a ready-made virtual machine file for VirtualBox or VMWare. Choose your format, set a version number, and that build will always be available for downloading or "cloning". Not quite sure what to do with the files you received? Here's SUSE Studio's guide to using SUSE Studio appliances—though we'd certainly welcome more tips, especially on imaging USB drives with .RAW image files, in the comments.
Don't have the time or patience to burn a CD or installing a new virtual machine? SUSE Studio actually lets you run your custom-built appliances on their own virtualisation servers, for up to one hour, for free. Hit the "testdrive" link on one of your builds, and wait for it to boot up
I was fairly impressed with the performance of a virtual machine I created entirely online, running on servers likely a world away and controlled entirely through a browser.
That's just a quick glance at what you can do with SUSE Studio — we're planning on building out a very slim, but helpfully app-loaded OS and sharing our configuration in the future. Tell us about your own "appliance" builds, and other custom OS tools, in the comments.