World Series of Linux: The Hardware8:00 PM EST Wed. Dec. 12, 2007
The perfect test bed would be the vanilla machine -- not customized or souped up for gamers, engineers, or hardware enthusiasts -- that is readily available to anyone looking for a basic PC. Historically, Linux distributions have had trouble with brand-new hardware, especially if the manufacturer didn't bundle Linux-ready drivers. While most Linux distributions work just as well with AMD processors, Intel remains more available. Since a bulk of the testing mimicked office functions, such as printing, playing media, and accessing shared drives, the test box didn't require any special power or performance enhancements.
The Systemax Business Desktop seemed to fit the requirements to a T. It came with an Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 2.2 Ghertz processor and 512 Mbytes of PC4200 DDR2 memory. The motherboard was Asus P5FC-MX mATX with integrated LAN. The box also contained a 80 Gbyte Western Digital SATA II hard drive and a 52x32x52/16x Combo optical drive.
For performance, engineers used Primate Labs' Geekbench software. A cross-platform performance measurement tool, the processor benchmarks run in both single-threaded and multi-threaded modes. The Systemax desktop had a Geekbench score of 2603. The detailed benchmark results are available at the Geekbench Results Browser and can be compared with similar hardware configurations.
Unexpectedly, despite the care taken with the hardware specification, engineers encountered some difficulty with drivers for the Asus board. Asus motherboards are fairly popular and are used by various vendors (this article was written on a HP Compaq desktop with an Asus motherboard inside). The specific problem related to the integrated LAN on P5FC-MX. The chipset, the Attansic L2 Fast Ethernet, has spotty Linux support. While a handful of distributions had no trouble, the bulk of the distributions choked on the Attansic chipset and failed to setup a working network. To get networking, engineers had to manually compile drivers from source and to fiddle with the kernel.
There's often an underlying assumption that the free distributions aren't "as good" as the enterprise ones, so engineers were surprised that the two enterprise distributions, SLED 10 and Xandros, both failed to work with the chipset. According to a Novell spokesperson, enterprise versions tend to have less driver support than the free versions because the company performs extensive testing on drivers before including them into the enterprise product. As a result, there is some lag time between when products hit the market and when drivers are supported.
The free versions have more drivers, generally because the community works on the support, claimed the spokesperson. To test the claim, engineers replaced SLED 10 with OpenSUSE 10, and still failed to get a working network.
Since the network was a critical component of the final head-to-head comparison, Test Center engineers came up with an alternate workaround. Instead of compiling the source for the final round, they plopped in a 3Com PCI Ethernet card. This network card was detected without trouble by all the distributions.
Printing was part of the test for office functionality. Linux used lpr for printing in the past. However, the Common UNIX (and Linux) Printing System (CUPS) is becoming more or less the standard printing system for a number of distributions. It is much easier to configure and is a more efficient process. Engineers were curious which distributions supported CUPS and would install the printer using the HP universal drivers.
The test system also had external speakers and a subwoofer.
All in all, this was box was a solid business user's PC without any whistles, bells or gimmicks.