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Linux on More Dell Client Systems?

As highlighted in Michael Brown's post, we put a lot of effort into our Linux offerings on our workstations and servers.

On the client side, our efforts are much more behind-the-scenes. We recognize the chicken-and-egg problem though: it has to work before many people will want to buy it; and it won't work unless effort is put into it before people start buying it. So we're cracking the egg, not quite making omelets.

No surprise, our Linux engineers run a wide variety of Linux distros on our own desktops and notebooks, and fix bugs we encounter in daily use. Fortunately, many of the components are common across products, so we leverage that work too; ACPI, SATA 2, audio drivers, Firewire, firmware tools and video drivers are a few items that the Precision team develops, which directly benefits users of our desktops and notebooks. In addition to casual investigation, we do work directly with engineers at Intel, Red Hat, and Novell/SuSE on specific client features, such as ACPI testing, suspend-to-RAM and suspend-to-disk, hot plug device bays and docking station support.

If you buy a Dell notebook and run Linux on it, does Dell's hardware warranty still apply? Absolutely. You'll need to demonstrate you're having a hardware problem using the Dell Diagnostics CD. Will Dell (today) provide full Linux software support for that system? No. You'll be counting on a community support model for software issues, but many people are already a part of that global community and it suits them just fine. Ubuntu's Hardware Support list, Linux-Dell-Laptops at Yahoo!, tuxmobil, and other sites noted at http://linux.dell.com/desktops.shtml demonstrate a vibrant user community and a development model radically different than the "full vendor support" model we use for servers and workstations, but one that fits the needs (and cost sensitivity) of this community right now.

Adding to the above existent communities, Dell's Linux team today announces a new public mailing list, linux-desktops@dell.com(subscribe and read archives at http://lists.us.dell.com). This list, analogous to our linux-poweredge and linux-precision lists, is intended for Linux system administrators who have Dell desktop or notebook systems, and will include Dell's Linux engineers. This is not a formal technical support list, but it should prove to be a useful forum.

In Michael's post, Direct2Dell reader Aaron noted that we do offer a few n-Series systems—systems available with FreeDOS rather than a Microsoft-based OS—including our Precision workstations, OptiPlex and Dimension desktops. We've heard the multiple requests from Direct2Dell readers like James Randall for n-Series notebooks and more desktops. I hope to have more on that in a future post.

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Comments
  • Can you make a linux-notebooks list as well?
  • I prefer to have fewer higher-volume lists rather than more lower-volume lists.  I believe many of the topics that will be discussed on linux-desktops is applicable to both desktops and notebooks, and hey, I had to choose some name (linux-clients anyone?).  If the volume is such that it makes sense to split the list in the future, I'll consider that then.  But for now, one list can serve.

  • So, any chance you'll be using fixed DSDTs in your BIOSes now, for all PCs (desktops, notebooks, tablets)?  Last I looked, it was still generated using Microsoft's (broken) tools, and hence throwing warnings when re-compiled with Intel's kit.  These bugs are the source of many a hardware headache (though admittedly my i8600 doesn't seem to be lacking anything; I still got the errors and wonder what they affected).  How about giving us support on sensors? (i8kutils is nice, but it's not nearly as nice as it should be.)

    I will, however, agree with the following statement: "You'll be counting on a community support model for software issues, but many people are already a part of that global community and it suits them just fine" However, I would extend that to hardware as well.  The main source of headaches when using Linux on Dell's (and many other Microsoft vendors') hardware is that I, the Linux-using customer, end up being the tech support and systems engineer.  It's nice to learn things, and very nice to have the option, but for things to "Just Work" WE (the customers who run Linux on your hardware) have to get all of the workarounds for all of the various bugs in the hardware--broken DSDTs, lying DDC information, etc.  The PC world is rife with quirky hardware, but Windows doesn't have a problem with it--but ONLY because the hardware vendors work around the quirks (bugs) in the drivers.  Unfortunately, that leaves me, the Dell customer who uses Linux, to do the work that you, the Dell engineer, do for your Windows customers.  And, after many a year of doing your work, I'm tired of it and would like to buy a Linux notebook that Just Works.  This is why I'm trying very hard to find a Linux pre-installed notebook for my next PC.  (I've given up on vendors for desktops, unfortunately, and build them all myself nowadays).

    It's not too late to convince me that Dell is worth spending my money on--else, there are smaller vendors who do listen to the (Linux) customer.
  • Sorry for the caps, but whenever I clicked the "B" for bold, and then started typing, the cursor would pop up to the previous bold instance.  (BTW, your CSS seems to be somewhat hosed; lots of "Unknown pseudo-class or pseudo-element" and "Error in parsing value for property" warnings.  Indeed, your page doesn't seem valid XML: http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/validator?uri=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.direct2dell.com%2Fone2one%2Farchive%2F2006%2F11%2F01%2F3396.aspx%3FCommentPosted%3Dtrue%23commentmessage&usermedium=all)

  • With thanks to Intel's developers, we are using the tests from http://www.linuxfirmwarekit.org for validating the BIOS on all our systems.  This should reduce incompatibilities going forward.  If there are specific DSDT issues you are aware of and have solutions for, join us on the linux-desktops mailing list to discuss.

  • Jeff, as you can appreciate, the amount of effort required to develop for and test FreeDOS on systems is significantly lower than the effort required to develop for and test any Linux distribution.  FreeDOS meets the needs of people looking for a system without a Microsoft operating system on it.
  • Why do you offer FreeDOS with some pcs and not Linux? By modern standards, FreeDOS does not cut it for a desktop or laptop system and yet for many people (not everyone), desktop linux does.

    Could you email me a reason why Dell doesn't ship a free Linux distribution like Ubuntu or OpenSUSE with the same pcs which offer FreeDOS? Maybe there could be an option of FreeDOS or Linux?

    Thanks for letting everyone know how things are going.
  • It's great to see Dell embracing Linux like this.

    I'd now love to see Dell apply pressure on hardware vendors by requiring them to
    1. release hardware documentation for the purposes of open source driver development without the requirement of signing non-disclosure agreements.  This would mean no reliance on binary blobs with unknown security implications running in kernel space.
    2. provide any required firmware with a liberal redistribution licence, which would allow open source operating systems to include such firmware as part of the operating system.
    This would greatly benefit Dell in several ways:
    • Dell systems would get a reputation for having better security and reliability compared with competitors' systems using closed hardware.
    • Ensure that the hardware "just works" when any operating system (with an active development community) is installed on it.
    • Increase the resale value of its systems, because you could be pretty certain that hardware would continue to be supported by operating system vendors without placing any burden on hardware vendors, long after they are considered "obsolete".  This would also augment Dell's good work on the environmental front in that it would increase the chance of hardware having a second life.
    IMHO, it would be a great competitive advantage if Dell were to have systems across it's range, from consumer to enterprise that were Open-Source Operating System Ready.
  • I would like to be able to simply buy any given system without having to buy a microsoft os with it.
  • "So we're cracking the egg, not quite making omlettes."

    You're not quite spelling omelets, either Matt.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/omelet

    Glad to see Dell is putting more effort into non-MS offerings.
  • JohnF: noted and fixed, thanks.
  • JohnF,

    Not to be picky, but...

    Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1)

    omelet

    Also, omelette

    And
    om·e·let also om·e·lette
     
    While the first is preferred, the second is also correct. :)
     
    While there have been some valid points, especially about the DSDTs, something very few Windows users even know exists but almost every Linux user has at least read about.  Dell has valid points as well. 
     
    It is a chicken and egg problem,  the cost of developing a Linux solution that "Just works" on a desktop or (especially) a portable is not justified until there are enough people wanting to purchase such a system and there will not be very many people purchasing systems for Linux, until it "Just Works".
     
    When a manufacturer goes to develop a new system, they know a certain amount of te cost will be to get Windows and the drivers to work together, but they know they will sell millions and the cost per system will be minor.  On a server, even though they may only sell a few hundred thousand, the higher purchase cost covers the higher development cost per box. 
     
    Now consider developing a system that you may only sell a few thousand boxes, the development cost will drive the price of the system up beyond where people will pay for the features.
     
    I can just see the advertisements.  Buy our new Linux portable, it costs twice what our Windows Portable costs for an OS that you can download for free!
     
    Oh wait, Apple already did that.
     
  • Being a Dell customer at home with some of my private computers and at work using the company provided computers I did some Linux installs (not just for fun, but for daily work). All of these were successful, but sometimes it took real hard work to get Linux running. * Some computers had problems with the ACPI implementation, installation was barely possible. In the end I got Linux running, but it took a lot of time. But there was no way to use suspend / resume with these computers. * On other systems the BIOS did not report the available graphics resolutions correctly. Linux was easily set up in text mode, but configuring X was an "interesting" experience. In the end it worked out. * On one system I needed multiple BIOS updates until USB mouse and keyboard were useable, the BIOS the system was shipped with did not even allow an installation of Linux because in mid-procedure mouse and keyboard stopped working. * One system has a graphics card that would allow 3D acceleration if the proprietory driver would not freeze the computer completely. You can see I had my share of "puzzles" to solve with Dell hardware. In comparison to other hardware I'm using Dell seems to "attract interesting experiences". To me it seems that the BIOS enhancements bring more trouble to Linux users than advantage. Sometimes less can be more. :-) But I want to be fair: Over time the situation improved somewhat. And your tests with the Intel BIOS test kit will hopefully help to fix some BIOS issues for the next generation of computers. One of the positive surprises was the availability of BIOS upgrade executables for Linux! Thank you for this great tool, it worked like a charm. I wish you would make these BIOS upgrade executables available for all your models (I still have one system for which only a Windows update file is available). My suggestions are: * Avoid "Windows only" hardware strictly. And prefer hardware that has open source Linux drivers over closed source drivers. Closed source drivers will only work for certain distributions or kernel versions. If your software configuration is not supported you do have a problem, a big problem because it renders your hardware useless. * Sell all desktops and notebooks with or without Windows (an empty hard disk or FreeDOS installed). As your customer I do expect from you that you give me the choice of software I want to run on _my_ computer. * Install a bug tracking system. Mailing lists are fine for discussion and for community support. I can see that there is Dell personnel using the lists, helping with advice and gathering information that is actually used to improve the systems. But mailing lists are volatile, therefore it would be a good idea to have a system like Bugzilla where feedback is recorded, categorized and searchable. Everyone can check the state of a reported issue. This is a QA topic. Currently there is no large hardware seller in the market who has a Linux reputation if it comes to desktops and notebooks. If Dell would build computers in a way that they would "just work" with Linux, then Dell would build a reputation with the Linux community. This could initiate a spiral of ever better Linux hardware sells more units, attracts more Linux users, gets more feedback, makes better Linux hardware, gets more feedback ... Investing now into Linux support is an investment into the future. Even if Dell does not pre-install (and actively support) a Linux distribution on their computers the described suggestions would be a big improvement. I'm planning to purchase some highend notebooks next year. Currently I'm not sure if I will purchase Dell hardware, because I'm looking for hardware that "just works with Linux" and I don't want to pay a "Microsoft tax". Dell could help me a lot with the decision ...
  • I think Dell will achieve huge traction in the Linux Desktop and Laptop markets if Dell starts selling computers with hardware components that is openly documented -- this will inevitably lead to good support using open source drivers (this is even more important now that major distributions like Novell SUSE, Redhat, and Ubuntu don't ship binary drivers that are most likely illegal). Open documentation will ensure forward compatibility and will enable the community to continue servicing the hardware. Finally, it is important that Dell publicize on the product page that you're building your systems using openly documented hardware components, so that the open source community is free and motivated to write and improve drivers for Dell hardware.

    Suggestions:
    1) Graphics cards that work with Free & Open Source drivers. Currently, all the n Series desktops come exclusively with NVIDIA and ATI graphics cards that do not work with open-source drivers. The Open Graphics Project will release a consumer graphics card soon that will have full OpenGL acceleration -- the card's internal specifications will be completely documented and its internal design will be GPL'ed so that open-source drivers can take maximum  advantage of the card's capabilities. It would be really cool if you guys become the Open Graphics Project's first customer ;)

    2) Wireless cards that work with Free & Open Source drivers without the need for binary blobs and without firmware that can't be freely distributed. This rules out Intel wireless cards, but there are really good integrated wireless solutions from Ralink  and Zydas that are open-source friendly at the same time.

    3) Laptop modems that work with Linux (ie. not WinModems). IBM came up with a Linux-compatible laptop 56K Fax/Modem for one of their Thinkpads. If such modems aren't on the market anymore, simply don't include them on your open-source laptops. Why should people pay for hardware they can't use?

    4) LinuxBIOS has been getting a lot of attention from hardware makers such as AMD and recently MSI. There's even talk about MSI contributing LinuxBIOS support for some of their laptop lines. It would be great if Dell started selling desktops and laptops that are completely free -- a big selling point for Free Software activists.
  • Bob:

    1) The Open Graphics Project won't be able to compete with ATI/nVidia/Intel/VIA. It's a project that will be nice for low-powered desktop work.

    2) Zydas zd1211 still has a binary blob as firmware. It's just hex-coded and put in a .c file. Actually, so far I have been unable to find a single wireless card that doesn't have a binary blob that needs to be loaded somehow.

    3) Agreed :-)

    4) That would really be interesting, but I suspect it would be a support nightmare. For really high-tech users though, releasing the specs needed to enable linuxbios users to get it working would be great.