How Ubuntu Linux snuck into high-end Dell laptops (and why it is known as ‘Mission Sputnik’)


RALEIGH, NC — At the moment, the Dell XPS-13 with Ubuntu Linux is well essentially the most well-known Linux laptop computer. Many customers, particularly builders — together with Linus Torvalds — like it. As Torvalds not too long ago mentioned, “Usually, I would not identify names, however I am making an exception for the XPS 13 simply because I appreciated it a lot that I additionally ended up shopping for one for my daughter when she went off to school.” 

So, how did Dell — greatest identified for good-quality, mass-produced PCs — find yourself constructing top-of-the-line Ubuntu Linux laptops? Properly, Barton George, Dell Applied sciences’ Developer Neighborhood supervisor, shared the “Mission Sputnik”  story this week in a presentation on the in style Linux and open-source group present, All Issues Open.

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First, nonetheless, it is best to know that Dell has supported Linux desktops and laptops because the center 2000s. In 2006, Michael Dell advised me that Dell could be the primary main PC vendor to launch and help desktop Linux — and this proved to be a hit. 

George defined that Dell had at all times executed nice quantity with these computer systems. Not quantity, just like the Home windows machines, after all, however sufficient that Dell has at all times provided Linux-based — primarily Pink Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) powered —  workstations.  

Nonetheless, none of those machines actually appealed to builders. George defined:

 “Again in 2011, a gaggle of us had been making an attempt to determine how Dell might turn out to be extra related to builders. Dell wasn’t an enormous factor in builders’ minds, and we determined it might be a good suggestion to get builders to alter their minds and to think about Dell as an organization they wished to work with.” 

This notion had been sparked by a dialog between Dell and Stephen O’Grady, co-founder of the developer-centric analyst agency RedMonk. Barton recalled O’Grady suggesting it might be nice for builders “in the event you took one in every of your laptops, put Ubuntu on it, and simply bought it to work. We mentioned that is an superior thought, nevertheless it’ll by no means occur, as a result of we’re speaking about Dell. Our laptops must ship big volumes and income. After I talked to one in every of our higher-ups concerning the volumes that we thought we’d promote, he mentioned, ‘Yeah, that is what we promote in Belgium on Tuesday, between three and 4 within the afternoon.'” 

Regardless of this disheartening analysis, when Dell began an in-house innovation fund, Barton pitched it once more. This time, he was granted $40,000 to pursue the concept. “This was sufficient to get going,” George recalled. “So, very first thing, we put collectively an official workforce. However none of us had been full-time on this. We bought approval from their managers to work on this formally, nevertheless it was kind of in our spare time.” At occasions, George mentioned, “The venture employees was two folks and a canine.”

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George approached Google and Amazon: “‘Here is what we’re making an attempt to do,’ he associated his pitch. ‘Does this seem like one thing you would be keen on?’ And so whereas they did not place an order there for 10,000 models, they did not chuckle me out of the room, both.” It was sufficient to show there was a enterprise case for a developer-focused Ubuntu Linux laptop computer.  

Throughout that very same interval, George introduced on his private weblog what Dell was planning, and his site visitors went from 60 views a day to fifteen,000. Then, as now, there’s a whole lot of curiosity in laptops that include Linux able to go. 

In spite of everything that, the workforce wished to make sure they did it proper. This would not simply be a case of dumping a distro on a machine and hoping for the perfect. You are able to do that at this time and have a superb opportunity of all the pieces working completely. In 2013? Not a lot. 

George added, “We created a tough picture that folks might use on the XPS 13. Builders might obtain it and begin engaged on it. We advised folks there have been a  lot of caveats, and it wasn’t an official launch nor supported. However the important thing factor right here is when you could not do that with shoppers, with builders — who knew it was a beta– you then’re okay. And, we had many of the bugs labored out. The most important one was the touchpad, which any individual described as ‘craptastic””

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So, Dell bought along with Canonical, Ubuntu Linux’s dad or mum firm, to ensure all of the drivers had been in place for a top-notch Ubuntu Linux developer desktop expertise. Certainly, the identify ‘Mission Sputnik’ is a nod to Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu founder and Canonical CEO. A decade earlier than the venture itself, Shuttleworth had spent eight days orbiting the Earth in a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. George and the crew determined “Soyuz”  did not have an inspiring ring to it, so the corporate went with “Sputnik” as an alternative.

George continued:

 “We introduced a beta program for the machine with a ten% off supply. We thought, properly, we’ll in all probability get 300 folks. As an alternative, we bought 6,000. That is the place senior administration mentioned OK, you’ve got bought one thing actual. We went from slides to launch in 9 months. That is fairly quick for constructing a system.”

Now, greater than a decade later, the Dell XPS 13 line and different different Ubuntu-Linux-powered techniques are extra in style than ever. From a skunkworks venture, George and firm created a Linux {hardware} mainstay for each builders and energy customers.

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