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.
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.”
How High Is the
Meanwhile, Dell customers can purchase its OptiPlex n series, which allow Linux or another operating system to be installed by their buyers, or use its custom software configuration service, which would afford them the opportunity to add Linux from the factory for an additional charge.
OK, point made. But how high-end are these machines really? The high-end Precision 670n with no modifications comes with a single Intel 2.8GHz 64-bit Xeon processor, 512MBs of DDR2 SDRAM (Double Data Rate Two Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory), a keyboard, mechanical mouse, a 48x CD-ROM, a 160GB SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment), 7200-RPM hard drive, and a 64MB PCIe x16 nVidia Quadro NVS 280 graphics card.
Meanwhile, these systems are being sold directly by Dell as part of its small business offerings, in addition to being offered to other customers, including its large and medium business accounts.
And theres support. With it comes Dells 3-Year On-site Economy Plan for support. This plan includes 24×7 phone technical support, online technical support, and if needed following phone-based troubleshooting, next business day on-site service.
Arguably, choosing one of these machines presents the easiest route to buying a Linux desktop from Dell. Although, to purchase one, a customer will have to pay more than a standard OptiPlex desktop, which starts at about $400.
As for the operating system, customers get RHEL WS 4 for the Intel EM64T architecture with one year of RHN (Red Hat Network) support.
This desktop distribution usually lists for $179 a copy for the basic edition. Besides having access to RHN for patches and updates, it comes with a year of online installation and basic configuration support and 30-days of installation and configuration phone support.
Dell will also, upon request, install the 32-bit version of RHEL WS on these systems.
RHEL WS also comes with the 2.6.9 Linux kernel, the OpenOffice.org office suite, the Firefox Web browser, and several e-mail clients, including Evolution.
The desktop interface is based on GNOME Linux desktop, but KDE is available as an option.
Dells Web site is still somewhat confusing in the way it outlines exactly what Dells Linux support has to offer.
A close look reveals that “Dell offers customers the choice of Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS or FreeDOS on select Dell Precision workstation systems.”
In detail, the Dell Web site states, “Dell factory installed versions of Red Hat Linux provide customers with a tested, optimized, certified and supported platform on which to run their professional workstation applications.”
You cannot, however, buy one of these systems and switch out RHEL and expect to get any support.
“With the exception of reinstalled original Dell versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS for Precision workstations, Dell does not provide technical assistance for customer installed Linux operating systems.”
No Focus on Mass
Dell also seems to not be pushing its Linux workstations to the mass market. Besides offering the machines without any fanfare, the companys Web site notes, “Linux is an excellent migration platform for customers with business critical software previously restricted to proprietary UNIX platforms.”
While Dell public relations may claim that these RHEL systems dont represent a change and that Dell has offered Linux on its workstations since 1999, at least one user disagrees.
Pamela Jones, editor of Groklaw, a Linux and open-source legal news sites, said, “I did a story in 2004 about my struggle to buy a Dell with Linux preinstalled. I failed.”
This “is a change, if they really mean that Red Hat Linux is factory installed and that they mean by that it arrives at your house with Red Hat on the computer already. I havent investigated yet to see if that is what now happens for real. If they havent changed their policy from 2004, they certainly need to.”
A system integrator specialist with a global outsourcing firm, also, agreed that Dell could be taking a new approach. From where he sits, though, it doesnt go far enough.
“It is a big deal in the sense that they are selling workstations with a supported version of Linux. But it would be an even bigger deal if they were selling the cheapo PCs with a desktop Linux,” he said.
“It also totally befuddles me that they havent made an announcement to the effect that they are offering these machines.”
Dan Kusnetzky, former IDC VP for system software, and now marketing VP of Open-Xchange Inc., an open-source, groupware and e-mail company, also sees Dell changing course.
“Dell has an off-again, on-again affair with Linux. Dells business focus is on high-volume customers, so its early Linux desktop experiments quietly disappeared in 2001.
Nevertheless, Dell has always been willing to pre-load Linux on desktops to large-volume customers who asked for it, but Dell never advertised this. That Dell is now publicly making Linux available to one-off customers directly by its Web site is a major change,” said Kusnetzky.
The big question is how much things will change from here. From this perch, the love affair may be back on—at least for a while.
Now if Dell would only stop threading the needle between workstations and desktops. Then it might be on to something.
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