When Is a Linux Workstation Really a Desktop?

Opinion: Dell may be splitting hairs by offering a Linux workstation that looks a lot like a desktop. In the process, it may be giving desktop Linux a boost.

Is Dell is on its way to becoming the first tier-one PC vendor to offer a mainstream business Linux desktop to U.S. customers? Its starting to look that way.

In the recent past, Dell has toyed with shipping a Linux-powered PC to the U.S. market. But, when push came to shove, the results—a Dimension E510n PC shipped with an empty hard drive, a copy of the obscure, open-source FreeDOS operating system and no support if you did install Linux—were less then impressive.

Its a different story for so-called workstations priced nearly as cheaply as desktops. Dell has started advertising a trio of affordable workstations with RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) WS (workstation) 4 preinstalled.

These workstations raise a few interesting questions. For example, could they be sold as desktops? If so, does that mean Dell could serve as the de facto tier-one PC vendor that supports Linux? And could it do so without annoying Microsoft?

To be sure, Windows XP Professional remains Dells first choice for its business desktop users. But the PC maker may be quietly becoming the first major player to offer easy and relatively affordable way to buy a modern business Linux desktop in the United States.

Add it up and its an interesting way for Dell to thread the Windows-Linux needle.

While described as "Workstations," Dells Linux boxes are midrange-priced and equipped business desktops with Pentium and Xeon processors.

Specifically, Dell is offering, from top to bottom, a Dell Precision 670n, a Dell Precision 470n, and a Dell Precision 380n with prices, as of today, ranging from $1,263 to $759 without a monitor after rebates and special offers.

It all sounds downright desktop-ish. The problem? Dell says it has offered RedHat as a pre-installed OS consistently in its Precision workstation since 1999.

Dell spokesperson Jeremy Bolen said the company basically defines a workstation as a heavy-duty desktop or notebook that is certified to work with various ISVs applications, including those for computer aided design, video editing, modeling software for the gas and oil industry and other similar applications.

Bolen argues that companies will purchase workstations for those specific jobs versus buying them as desktops for so-called knowledge workers, who spend time e-mailing, word processing and creating PowerPoint presentations.

To that end, Dell offers corporate desktops that claim to provide stability, manageability and, at the same time, sell for lower prices than its workstations.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about Dells Linux desktop efforts.

Thus, Bolen says, Dell isnt pitching the RedHat machines as traditional business desktop replacements.

"Theyre very targeted to professionals in the workstation space who deal with applications such as CAD, digital content creation—which includes 3D animation and things like that," Bolen said.

"We market these at a targeted audience. These are the people doing really high-end stuff as opposed to the usual corporate guy thats doing e-mail, some light Excel stuff, PowerPoint and Web surfing."

Next Page: How high is the high end?