Linux … everywhere?

Where did those Dell Linux boxes go?

"Linux is everywhere" according to a Dell slogan. But if that's the case how come its so difficult to buy a Linux system from them? Based on my recent online shopping trip it is a wonder that they have sold any Linux systems at all.

You can't buy what you can't see. In fact, virtually all of the major hardware vendors have gone out of their way to bury Linux alternatives among their product offerings. The one exception is a company that no one thought was much of a friend to Open Source.

As you may have noticed, Dell is still catching a bit of flak about its attitude towards Linux systems. Ever since the company ran away from Linux for the desktop last August, it continues to come up with creative ways to annoy what The Register's John Lettice called the Open Source Mullahs. The suggestion that Linux is so special and odd that it requires banishment to Dell's Custom Factory Integration dungeon is bound to offend, but it's not necessarily inaccurate.

After all, the reason most folks pick through the cooked stew that is the Open Source codebase is because they want to create a unique software configuration. It is quite reasonable of the Dell folks to suggest that you might want that image replicated to your new Dell servers (or desktops) rather than shipping off a box with a a bunch of Red Hat CDs.

However, in order to be able to opt for this service, you'd need to be able to locate the appropriate boxes on Dell's website and connect them up to this "service." You can't buy what you can't see. I started shopping for some of my business clients last week, and I was amazed at the degree to which Dell went out of its way to hide their Linux systems. I was looking to get prices and configurations to feed a business plan for a specialty marketing shop that relocates European tech businesses to North America.

In addition, I was shopping for a collective of contract technical writers who have been winning more business than they can support. Both firms had a collection of personal boxes and not much else. Neither firm needed anything fancy, just a low-cost generic server farm capable of supporting a highly dispersed client base. It sure seemed like a simple project, and Linux was a cheap, obvious solution.

What wasn't obvious was how to to buy it at Dell.

The company recently sent an open letter to its customers about Linux and Dell, but if you didn't get the letter you would never know there was a URL involving Dell and Linux. If you simply began began at the Dell web site as I did, you wouldn't know the company had any relationship with Linux. Over the weekend, I padded around the Dell site looking for a reasonably inexpensive Dell system pre-installed with a current version of Linux -- and I couldn't find one.

Dell announced Monday that it was offering factory installation of Red Hat 7.2 on its Precision and PowerEdge server products, but as of late Monday night your options were still:

  • Windows 2000 Server,5 Client Access Licenses,English,4GB, Partition [add $799]
  • MS Windows NT Server 4.0 [add $799]
  • Windows NT4,Backup Domain Controller [add $799]
  • Netware 5.1 with 5 New User Licenses, NFI Image [add $749]
  • Netware 5.1 with 5 User Upgrade Licenses, NFI Image [add $399]
  • No Operating System(OTHER)
    (they did finally get Red Hat on their options page before noon on Tuesday)

They also linked to an "advisory" concerning how great Windows 2000 was. On their big machines, like the 6400, Dell offered telephone support for Linux for just a little under $900. Combined with the cost of the OS, the package was more expensive than a five license package from Microsoft. There was also no link to the customization factory from any Linux box that I could find.

I remain puzzled about why the company is unable to provide a Linux install on its desktops except that it would mean that they would have to remove the proclamation that "Dell PCs use genuine Microsoft® Windows®" that blinks at you from the bottom of nearly every page on Dell's website.

Perhaps the company thought that Linux options would be confusing to the customer, although I'd be surprised how anyone could be more confused than they would be reading about the section regarding choosing between "FAT 32" or NTFS if you bought a Windows XP machine. Perhaps it is because they are concerned about Linux's reputation for never being quite finished. Although they were happy to offer customers their 7300 workstations installed with Windows XP-64 Beta OS - but I digress.

The HP Way

Moving on to other vendors, Linux evangelist HP continues to offer "Linux Enabled" desktops --- that come pre-configured with Windows. You can buy Linux on selected models" though their "business store" but you'll be hard pressed to find a box. A search for Linux on the business store generates 36 results in order of relevance. Dead last are any boxes with Linux on them - which turn out to be a set of i2000 and x1000 series workstations, and the i2000 series support Linux but don't necessarily come with Linux. You can also find a find a nice link to Aarlburg University, which the company recommends as its support site. So much for taking the Linux community seriously.

Mostly to amuse myself, I looked at Gateway. Gateway offers two options on its lower end models, Windows or nothing. Unlike their competitors they don't even offer Novell -- and if you plan to run Windows 2000 in mixed mode, keeping your NT boxes for a while, you still are going to pay for 5 client licenses. To be fair they do offer Netware 5.1 on their higher-end 8400 series, but unlike any of their competitors they charge more for Netware than 2000.

The best suite of Linux offerings came from Compaq

That was a surprise. Compaq has spent far fewer marketing dollars than many other hardware firms in promoting Open Source. In addition, the company has been Microsoft's favorite equipment manufacturer. I recently studied early corporate adopters of Windows 2000, and virtually every one of them used Compaq servers, usually from their ProLiant series.

Just like their competitors, there's no desktops available (or if they have them, they hide them). Their Presarios come in one flavor -- Windows and XP only. Their Evo boxes come with optional "business software" and they don't even bother to specify who the vendor is. However, they don't hide away their Linux servers. They also don't hide the fact that a Linux customer might need a little help.

Unlike their competitors, they provide Linux Newbies with information about which Linux/hardware combinations work and which don't. They also carry an electronic line card with plenty of OS options. There's a way to go before Linux will have parity with Microsoft. There's only 8 ProLiant configurations pre-loaded with Linux compared to 44 systems offering various flavors of Windows, but a lot of the Windows boxes will be withdrawn soon, and the company plans to add another 18 Linux configurations. Linux software gets equal billing among the company's rather extensive offering of platforms, and Microsoft is only one option of several.

Linux may not be everywhere, but at least this company doesn't hide it away.

Happy shopping.


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