Special to the Newswire The Distribution Dilemma

Posted by tadelste on Mar 9, 2006 4:39 AM EDT
LXer.com; By Phil Howard
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One of the greatest things about Linux is that it comes in a large number of different distributions. That's also one of its big disadvantages, holding up a lot of further acceptance of Linux.

I use Slackware at home. I've even used Slackware at work in four past jobs. Even though it currently ranks number 10 on DistroWatch's ranking, that's not the distribution you're going to typically be seeing computer vendors providing or supporting. Instead, you'll see distributions like Fedora, SUSE, and Ubuntu. And that's just for a few smaller vendors that are focused on Linux. Larger vendors, such as Dell, are in the position of having to support a large number of distributions, which would increase the tech support costs substantially, or choose a single distribution, which would upset users of other distributions and limit the market reach of Linux compatible products.

From the perspective of businesses, and especially computer vendors that sell complete systems, the choices are not just as simple as Windows and Linux. While there are a few flavors of Windows a vendor that offers Windows could choose from to support, the Linux world is much more divided than Windows. And with Linux's smaller current market share, as compared to Windows, the fragmentation of so many distributions really means the choices available to a vendor are a number of small separate market shares. Dell deals with this issue by avoiding the choice of a distribution altogether, as explained in an interview with DesktopLinux.com. The problem with this choice is that supporting technical issues with hardware and software together are going to be difficult at best. "We can't support all 300 Linux distributions", Michael Dell said. Michael ... it's actually worse than that. In the mean time, Dell loads FreeDOS on their nSeries Open-Source Desktop offerings. But this doesn't help those who load their own choice of Linux distribution on a Dell computer.

Several years ago a friend of mine was working at a tech support firm that contracted out their support operations. He was on the team that supported a major hardware vendor that provided no Linux offerings or intentions at all. Ironically, he owned a computer from that same vendor and was running Slackware on it. He told me that while it was rare to get a call from someone actually running Linux, it did happen from time to time, and they were not supposed to provide any support for it at all. He did the best he could, anyway. Fortunately, he didn't get caught, or he could have lost his job. This is the kind of situation that does impede further adoption of Linux by business managers and home users that could otherwise switch to Linux; the lack of full vendor support, contracted or otherwise.

Linux users really need two basic kinds of support.

One kind of support is to make sure the machine is really designed to work with Linux. Based on Dell's working with Red Hat and Ubuntu, it can be concluded that Dell does do engineering with Linux in mind. Other large vendors that don't yet offer any machines with Linux, or FreeDOS, or without an OS at all, may or may not be doing any of this. They may not be doing any testing with Linux in any form, and may not even be considering Linux driver issues when selecting chipsets and boards to integrate into the products they sell.

The other kind of support is troubleshooting actual real-life technical issues a customer has with the computer they bought from a vendor that doesn't support the Linux distribution that customer is using. This is a big reason it's hard to separate the OS from the hardware. There are just too many potential issues to diagnose even with one OS choice; never mind a few hundred. Even Dell can't do all this kind of support. Maybe you could find someone at Dell that knows Red Hat. Or maybe you could find someone there that knows Ubuntu. Not everyone would be so lucky, and it wouldn't be official support.

This is where I think an idea I have could solve this dilemma, at least in part. What we need is a special "distribution" of Linux that is specifically focused on managing technical support. It would come in the form of a Live CD much like KNOPPIX or like the Live CD component of Ubuntu, Slackware, and other distributions.

The idea is to make this be a distribution neutral Live CD. It would focus on probing and finding hardware, offering different drivers to check out hardware for compatibility, and include tools to test hardware functionality and performance. While it should have some kind of graphical interface to make it reasonably friendly for most people, it would also need to be fully functional without the graphical interface in case there are problems with video hardware. It should even be able to communicate entirely by a serial port console, if needed.

What it would not have is the usual tools most people expect to have to make a computer useful. It would not have an office suite. It would not have a way to be installed onto the hard drive. It has to not be a distribution anyone would expect to be using as their OS in order to retain its neutral status. No one should care if it has enough library support to run every possible application, or even which kind of file system organization it uses.

This would allow a hardware vendor to remain distribution neutral while still including this CD with the computers they sell. If a user has a technical issue with the computer, they could boot this CD to try and track it down. It could include a hardware problem analysis program that could gather information about the problem, and try to resolve it as much as possible. When the problem can't be resolved by this CD, the call to the vendor tech support would be in order. But the CD could still be used as the vehicle for the vendor tech support to work through the issues and figure out what might be broken or unplugged. It would be the "Reference Linux" that tech support needs to at least support their hardware in a Linux environment.

This very same CD could also include the tools supplied by a traditional Rescue Disk. And with the addition of minimal network support, including FTP, RSYNC, SCP, SFTP and SSH clients, as well as a Firefox browser, it could be used to backup files over the LAN, re-image the hard drive OS, or just download a whole new distribution ... whichever one is preferred by the person running it. That would be Slackware for me.

» Read more about: Story Type: LXer Features; Groups: Fedora, Red Hat, Slackware, SUSE, Ubuntu

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
That is not the solution r_a_trip 18 2,814 Mar 19, 2006 5:44 AM
Wrong issues cubrewer 1 2,153 Mar 9, 2006 12:43 PM
and the name is....... SFN 1 2,288 Mar 9, 2006 12:43 PM

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