Analysis: One Year In, Dell's Linux Desktops Still Standing

Dell has, though, had to navigate some growing pains, work through some driver and other technical issues and it's still unclear if the Linux PC lineup is making Dell any money.

Of the top PC vendors, Dell and rival Lenovo now offer PCs not just with Linux preinstalled but with appropriate drivers and tweaks. This is a welcome development for solution providers that routinely play hunt-for-hardware-driver roulette for their Linux customers. Something as simple as an audio driver could, in the past, consume endless hours of searching.

Making it easy to get up and running with Linux on a PC was only half the battle. The more difficult task for Dell was to find a way to keep the system running-"regular updates and upgrades to new versions-"over time. This is a key concern, since many Linux distributions try to have a new release available every six months.

The launch was, in hindsight, the easy part. But how does Dell support the ongoing maintenance effort? As part of an ongoing look at Dell's efforts over the past several months, the Test Center took a step-by-step look at one instance in particular.

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Dell sent the Test Center a Dell Inspiron 530N with Ubuntu Linux preloaded several months ago. The system arrived with Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) preinstalled and the operating system on a CD.

The box itself is standard Dell issue-" a white Dell Inspiron box with Intel Pentium E2160 dual-core processor, 1 GB of memory, a 160-GB 7,200 rpm SATA disk drive, and Nvidia GeForce 8300 GS graphics. The machine also came with a 16x DVD rewritable drive, a FireWire port, six USB ports (two for the mouse and keyboard), and a 13-in-1 card reader. For performance, the Dell 530N benchmarked 2,354 on Geekbench software from Primate Labs.

Heavy Linux users also often do clean reinstalls of the current version. This makes sense especially if a lot of packages had been recently installed and uninstalled, during an evaluation, for example. There are often abandoned or broken packages scattered through the system, and occasionally doing a clean reinstall is good practice.

Dell lists a reinstall option in the GRUB menu at boot that users can use for reinstalling the same version. This becomes unavailable if the disk is repartitioned, however.

For testing purposes, Test Center reviewers first did a clean reinstall of Feisty Fawn and then upgraded to Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon.

Ubuntu can be upgraded in two ways: by doing a clean install of the new version, or by using the update manager software. The preferred method in the Test Center is to do a clean install. This way, old packages lingering in the system from the previous version are removed. Updating in place basically means the software is being replaced in pieces, creating more points of failure. Cleanup of old and unused files are not always properly done. Since data was already backed up on an external drive and all user files in /home are kept on a separate partition, blowing away the partition with Ubuntu to install the new version was practical.

The initial reinstall of Feisty Fawn was fairly straightforward-"entering information about the system and selecting partitions using the built-in partition editor. After restarting the computer, the OS easily found the /home partition and all the profiles were in place, good to go. That was easy, we thought.

Except for a major problem: There was no networking.

It turned out that the Inspiron 530n shipped with the Intel networking controller, but the base e1000 Linux driver couldn't recognize the hardware. After searching on mailing lists and forums, reviewers found the drivers for both, which were copied onto a flash drive to transfer to the machine. The install scripts took the source code, compiled it, and then installed the driver.

There were some minor problems with the Nvidia graphics and X, but downloading the actual Linux driver solved that.

As it turned out, Dell made it much easier than we even anticipated.

The difficulties could have been avoided somewhat by just looking at the Dell Linux Wiki created by the Round Rock, Texas-based company to provide support and how-to information to users. Whoops. Dell has pages for each model, describing features and known issues. Under the 530n for Ubuntu 7.04, the issue is listed, as well as the fix, upgrading the kernel and installing specific package.

Dell says up front that its Linux offering does not target novices. The Wiki reflects that assertion, since the Wiki is skimpy on details on how to implement the fix. There are no details about getting the kernel or using dpkg to install the package.

Dell includes an Ubuntu Live CD with the appropriate drivers with each system. The initial CDs that went out with the 530n didn't have the required drivers, but Dell has since fixed that problem. Anyone with the CD with missing drivers could download the remastered CD containing the correct drivers for the e1000 controller and 32-bit NVIDIA card from the Wiki. The new CD can also be requested by contacting Dell.

For the upgrade to Gutsy Gibbon, reviewers downloaded the custom copy of the Ubuntu 7.10 Live CD from the Wiki. Dell has created a different ISO file for each hardware platform to make sure there are correct drivers for the Nvidia card. The installation for the upgrade went smoothly using the custom CD. (Even the networking.) There was no need to try the install using the standard Live CD from the Ubuntu site.

One thing to note about the Live CDs: If the customer site has a mix of hardware-"-some from Dell, some not from Dell, running Linux, solution providers will need to remember to have a standard Live CD from Canonical and the custom one from Dell. If the customer has a mix of Dell hardware, such as the 530n and 1420n, the solution provider has to have two different CDs from Dell. This can get quite confusing and time-consuming over the life of the systems.

Dell is providing the Linux community with a stable hardware platform and simplifying a lot of the work in maintaining the Linux PC. The support is a little uneven as it straddles the line between novice users and expert to reach the advanced business users. An example of the unevenness: While Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron was in beta, Dell's Wiki provided no support for users wanting to upgrade beforehand. This was at odds with Dell's desire to support advanced users, many of whom would want to upgrade before the stable version is out, or at least the day of its release. Waiting is not something advanced users want to do.

But it's an effort not many companies are currently making, putting Dell in a unique position of being the "Linux guy" one year in to the marriage between its PC business and Linux.