Matt Domsch and Judy Chavis - interview

From LXF Wiki

Working it out: Dell

Dell's new Linux-powered consumer machines are a major step forward open source on the mainstream desktop. But how did they come about, and what challenges does the company face?

For years, we've been waiting for a well-known PC maker to start shipping Linux on the desktop. A handful of small vendors have tried, with mixed success, but until now we haven't seen any action from the big box-shifters. That is, until Dell announced that it would be releasing a line of desktops and notebooks with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed. Initially the machines were limited to the US, but Dell has now announced that a range of Ubuntu-powered systems will be available in the UK too.

At LinuxWorld 2007 in San Francisco, Mike Saunders met up with Matt Domsch, Dell's Linux Technology Strategist, and Judy Chavis, a Director of Software solutions. Matt is a hardcore Linux geek, running Linux "all day, every day", and maintains a web page with Dell-related Linux tidbits at Judy Chavis was formerly the Worldwide Linux Director at HP before moving to Dell. So both have plenty of experience in the Linux arena, but can they make Linux work for the masses?

Linux Format: What triggered the decision to start shipping Linux on certain Dell machines?

Judy Chavis: On the desktop platform, this is not the first time that Dell has shipped Linux. We did that back in 2000; I would say the market wasn't quite ready, and we pulled them [the machines]. We started shipping again because of the feedback we got from the community through our IdeaStorm website. So, over 100,000 folks voted, and literally the number one idea that came out of Dell IdeaStorm was: we need to factory-install Linux. We thought OK, let's dig into that some more. So as we kept going back to the community and finding answers, we were told "You need to do Linux for us on a desktop." We dug a little bit further; which of those Linux distros should that be? A lot of them popped up ­ Ubuntu, SLED, Fedora ­ but it was really the community that helped us make that decision. Dell IdeaStorm is Michael Dell's brainchild and it's really about going back to our customers and listening to them, letting them help us navigate these waters. We were coming out of some bumpy times there ­ not listening to our customers and just shipping products. It's a matter of going back and listening, and caring about what they have to say. Should we make this pervasive across all our desktop platforms? No, pick a couple of platforms, and the community helped us to decide that too. This was not all about me sitting in some ivory tower; a lot of us were involved in the decision engineering, marketing, development, all of it.

LXF: So it was IdeaStorm that also prompted the choice of Ubuntu?

JC: Yes, the vote came in. The idea is, put your money where your mouth is. That was the number one idea, we're going to factory install it, and now we'd like you to start buying it with that particular Linux distribution!

LXF: What technical challenges did you face?

Matt Domsch: The first thing we had to do was figure out which platforms we wanted to offer to customers. We wanted to offer at least one notebook and one desktop system ­ in fact we were able to offer two initially, and now we've added a couple more. For device drivers, any recent distribution is going to mostly work on most hardware. So that's not a huge problem, but the wireless NICs, the video, the modem that's built into the laptops... We've got a very strong stance on open source drivers, and getting ours included in upstream, so that they just appear naturally in distributions. We started that back in 1999 when we started Linux on the server, and are carrying that same velocity forward onto the desktops and notebooks with Ubuntu. When we got started on this [Ubuntu] Feisty was almost done, so there was very little chance for us to make changes. We could make a couple of last minute tweaks. The great news was, almost everything just worked, so there wasn't a whole lot we had to change.

LXF: There wasn't any particular hardware you had to cut out?

MD: No ­ we specifically chose the platforms that had Intel audio or Intel video or Nvidia graphics, because we knew we had good support for those. We very carefully chose the wireless adaptor in the notebooks to make sure we had good support for that. So yes, we did choose some hardware over others, but we were already offering all of that and didn't have to choose completely new hardware.

LXF: If you go to the Dell site, you can customise your Linux machine when you buy it ­ choose a printer for instance. Is everything supported?

MD: No, certainly not printers; only a few of the high-end printers that have PostScript engines in them will work. We don't presently have Linux drivers for most of the inkjet line. We're talking to folks about how we can implement that, but we don't have anything to offer there right now.

LXF: So how has the support side been faring? Have you seen a surge in support requests?

JC: There's been no huge spike in support, and one of the questions we asked the community was: how do you want support? They said: through the forums, and through the blogs, so we're adding those to the support structure. You don't have to call Dell and pay whatever amount of money ­ there are community forums for support.

MD: On the website, which is the Linux engineering site, we added a wiki and posted a lot of technical information about the platforms. We've got lspci [hardware] information ­ very detailed specs about each of the platforms. We've got details about the drivers you need, and how to go about adding video drivers from the Ubuntu restricted repository. We wanted to make it very clear that Dell wasn't adding any secret sauce to the offering in order to make it work. It's like, "here are the three steps to make what was mostly working, work great now".

LXF: You can't see a Dell Linux distro appearing?

MD: Absolutely not. That's an awful lot of work.

JC: We're not in the business of software; we're in the business of partnering, and letting those distros decide what to put in whatever we distribute. There's no Dell Linux distro that will be on any horizon any time soon.

LXF: Will it hurt sales that you're only offering one distro?

JC: SLED and Novell Linux Desktop have been certified on our business desktops for a couple of years now. Ubuntu was the one that... there was such a loud cry and scream: "we want you to factory install it". So it's not that Dell has been opposed to having other distributions out there. The other thing too is, what are you using on your desktop?

LXF: Yes, I do use Ubuntu! Well, a modified version... Some people are very vocal about their choice of distro though...

MD: Again, that goes back to our strategy of device drivers. When the drivers are upstream in, we don't have to care what the distribution is. If you want to run Fedora, or SLED, or Ubuntu, or Gentoo ­ it doesn't matter to us, because they're going to be in the [mainstream] kernel, and each distribution will have their cut of it at various points in time. And if it doesn't work today, wait a couple of weeks for the next test release of your distro, give it a try and see if it's going to work. So we're choosing to factory install one distro, but it's going to work across the board.

LXF: Looking ahead, this is a big development for Linux on the mainstream desktop. But do you think there are any major hindrances such as the lack of a single, unified desktop? What is needed?

MD: It's all about the tools ­ the computer is just a tool, and the operating system is just a tool. If there are problems people are having that they can't solve with Linux... well, I don't know what they are to be honest! I use Linux all day every day, and I get my job done just fine. But if there are applications that can't run on Linux, or you're a real gaming enthusiast and want to play the latest, hottest games... Everyone's going to have their own answer to that question. But for the most part, the customers that we've talked to who've picked up the new Ubuntu systems... I saw one coming in on the subway the other day. He saw my shirt and said "Hey, I bought one of those. I love it ­ it just worked and did everything I needed to do."

JC: Where we are on the desktop today, it has to mature. On the server platform, it's fully there. From some of the discussions I was having recently within Dell, and with some of our major customers, there are no mission-critical applications you cannot run on Linux today. Oracle databases, SAP ­it's fully there. Linux is a teenager ­ it's growing up on the server side, it's very mature. A couple of years ago when I was at LinuxWorld, we had [HP's] Ann Livermore here, and our CTO Kevin Kettler here. We have a major set of corporate customers showing up, but when I was here 10-12 years ago, there were women in little hot pink bathing suits trying to get you excited.

It's a different ball game with Linux now ­ it's getting there on the server side. On the desktop side... My son is 17. At his high school, they're still using PowerPoint. He writes his code on Linux though, and with the schools and universities, it's going to take some time.

LXF: Who do you see as the typical buyer of your Linux systems?

JC: People buying a second PC. They have to feel comfortable. I also have a 13-year-old son, and he would not touch Linux. He has to get his MS Word document done, his spreadsheet for school and whatever else. His older brother, who knows Windows like the back of his hand, has no problems installing Ubuntu and then using it. So I see it as the enthusiast, the second-PC user who's solid with what they're doing. Your average Mom and Pop going into Best Buy or Fry's or whatever, they're not going to get Linux immediately to do their email or simple documents. They've beginning to hear of it ­ it's not foreign ­ but it's going to take them some time to feel comfortable with using it.

LXF: Cynics would suggest that some people will buy the machines, wipe Linux and put Windows on them instead...

JC: That could happen too. We have an `n Series' platform with no operating system on it, that people can buy if they don't want an operating system at all.

LXF: So when will we see "Dell recommends Ubuntu Linux" in your adverts? We've seen the "recommends Windows XP" lines...

JC: They're just business relationships. I'm sure that if we can put something together with Ubuntu, then we can do that. I don't see any issue why that couldn't be done. LXF