The LXer Interview: John Hull of Dell

Posted by Scott_Ruecker on Oct 12, 2007 3:05 AM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Sander Marechal
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LXer Feature: 12-Oct-2007

It has been over four months since Dell started shipping computers preloaded with Ubuntu GNU/Linux to home consumers in the United States. Lets take a moment to look at the progress that has been made so far. John Hull, manager of the Linux Engineering team in Austin was kind enough to let me interview him by e-mail. Besides commenting on the current state of affairs with Ubuntu on Dell machines, he also offers some insight in how the Linux team at Dell works and opens a small window into the future of Linux at Dell.

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It has been over four months since Dell started shipping computers preloaded with Ubuntu GNU/Linux to home consumers in the United States. Lets take a moment to look at the progress that has been made so far. John Hull, manager of the Linux Engineering team in Austin was kind enough to let me interview him by e-mail. Besides commenting on the current state of affairs with Ubuntu on Dell machines, he also offers some insight in how the Linux team at Dell works and opens a small window into the future of Linux at Dell.

John Hull, manager of the Dell Linux Engineering team

The Interview

About John Hull

Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, when your interest in computers and software started?

My interest in computers and software started with my love of video games. I was first exposed to computers as a kid in the early 80's, when my family bought a TRS-80. I played games on that computer non-stop until we eventually got an Apple IIe. One summer my parents sent me to a BASIC programming class, and after that I was constantly writing programs on that Apple. In high school I started using IBM PC's and learning Pascal, and then proceeded to learn C as a freshman in college.

While I eventually chose to major in mechanical engineering, I always seemed to figure out how to use my software skills in my mechanical engineering school projects, and had several summer jobs where I was paid to write software programs that solved mechanical engineering problems. This continued through graduate school, and through my jobs at Dell.

How did you come to be at Dell?

I came to Dell directly after finishing my Master's degree in mechanical engineering at MIT. Dell came to campus recruiting engineers, and I ended up getting a job offer. I started out at Dell as a factory engineer in our server factory here in Austin, then I later moved over to the Linux team as a test engineer. I have been on the Linux team for about 7 years.

What is your current position and what are your responsibilities?

We currently have Linux engineering teams in both Austin and Bangalore, India. In my current role, I am the manager of our Austin-based Linux engineering team. Together, our engineering teams are responsible for delivering Red Hat and SUSE Linux operating systems on PowerEdge servers, Red Hat Linux on Precision Workstations, and Ubuntu Linux on consumer systems.

In addition, our teams work with the open-source community to develop device drivers, fix kernel and application bugs, and develop open-source applications that are key to Dell's Linux strategy (such as DKMS, libsmbios, and firmware-tools). Much of what we do can be found on our Dell Linux engineering website, which is

Four months of Ubuntu on Dell

Can you give me an idea of what embracing Linux/Ubuntu for the home desktop and laptop has done for Dell? What has changed, what has stayed the same?

Embracing Ubuntu Linux on our desktops and laptops seems to have really raised Dell's visibility within the Linux community. We have been supporting, testing, developing for, and selling Linux for 8+ years here at Dell, but before the Ubuntu announcement, a lot of people didn't know that we did any of that. The announcement certainly opened people's eyes, and there seems to be much more awareness now that Dell is serious about supporting Linux.

What has not changed is our overarching philosophy and trying to make Linux "just work" on all of Dell's systems. Through our work with Linux on our servers and workstations, our goal has always been to push all device driver support and bug fixes into the respective upstream projects and to our Linux vendors. Our goal is to have customers be able to choose their Linux distro of choice, install it on whatever Dell system they buy, and have the OS install and run flawlessly. While this is very hard to accomplish, we have had a lot of success over the years doing this, and was an easy model to extend into the other Dell product lines for Linux.

Previous to our Ubuntu product announcement, it was much more difficult to extend this model to consumer desktop and laptop technologies. We would have a conversations with vendors about pushing Linux support for their hardware, but without a Linux product offering from Dell for that hardware, it was very difficult to convince them to release Linux drivers. That has certainly changed now that we offer Ubuntu Linux, and we are making much more progress in our vendor discussions.

Another area that has changed is our thinking around OS support models. Traditionally for enterprise Linux customers, if we sell them an OS on their system, they expect and demand a high level of operating system support. That is certainly not the case for our Ubuntu Linux customers, who have stated very loudly that, for the most part, they do not want to pay for OS support, and would rather get support from the community. That is a much different support model from what we have traditionally used, but is certainly one that we have embraced.

The original sales estimates for Ubuntu computers was around 1% of the total sales, or about 20,000 systems annually. Have the expectations been met so far? Will Dell ever release sales figures for Ubuntu systems?

The program so far is meeting expectations. Customers are certainly showing their interest and buying systems preloaded with Ubuntu, but it certainly won't overtake Microsoft Windows anytime soon. Dell has a policy not to release sales numbers, so I don't expect us to make Ubuntu sales figures available publicly.

In your introduction you mentioned that you have been on the Dell Linux team for seven years, so I assume that you were working on the Linux team back in 2000 when Dell shipped Red Hat on home desktops and laptops. Can you explain what has changed in the last seven years that makes Ubuntu Linux on Dell the success that apparently could not be achieved with Red Hat back in 2001?

Yes, I have been on the team since late 2000, so I was around when we offered Red Hat 6.1. Even back then, the team's motto was that Linux should "just work" for Dell hardware, so our approach hasn't really changed. At that time, most of the challenges around Linux for desktops and laptops were in the areas of hardware support and ease-of-use. As Linux has gained popularity, our hardware vendors have become increasingly interested in working with the Linux community and Dell to provide Linux support. The Linux distributions have also begun to focus much more on making the OS easy to install and use. Both of these, in turn, have really helped the Linux community grow, and have greatly increased demand for Linux on our desktops and laptops. So I would say that a large part of Dell's success today with Ubuntu can be attributed to the continuous improvements made by the Linux community to mature the kernel, the user space applications, and the distributions, but can it also be attributed to our continuous push over the years to help make Linux "just work" on our hardware.

From what we have seen, Dell's installation of Ubuntu is pretty much a vanilla installation. Besides hardware drivers, are there any changes Dell makes to the standard Ubuntu distribution and can you tell us a bit about them?

Ubuntu is already a great Linux distribution, so we try to only make changes where we can add value. Our primary focus is to get all necessary hardware support and bug fixes into the distribution itself, so that we don't have to make any changes to the shipping code. For those important bugs or hardware support that don't make the distribution, we'll make modifications to the factory-installed image as necessary. We add driver packages and scripts on top of the standard operating system to make sure our the customer experience is as nice as possible. Up to this point we have tried to minimize the changes we have made.

In the future, we may add additional applications (such as better multimedia capabilities, improved device control applets, or additional browser plugins), or possibly make user interface tweaks such as changing the default Compiz Fusion settings or improved desktop usability, but that will depend on customer feedback.

Dell recently started offering Ubuntu computers in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Can you tell us a bit about the work on offering the Ubuntu computers in even more countries?

We're taking conservative approach to rolling out the sale of Ubuntu systems to different countries. Since we're very new to offering Linux on consumer systems, we're making it available in the countries where we think there is the most demand, getting feedback from those customers on how to improve the offering, assessing the demand from other countries, and then making Ubuntu available in additional countries as we go. I would love to be able to offer Linux on consumer systems worldwide, but we're just not ready to do that at this time.

Currently Dell offers Ubuntu and FreeDOS on open source computers for home users. Are there any plans on offering other distributions, such as Fedora or OpenSUSE preloaded as well?

We don't currently have any plans to offer other distributions for home users. We're constantly listening to customer feedback on how we're doing, and right now Ubuntu seems to be the most popular by a fair margin. However, we try to make sure that the open-source drivers and bug fixes that are needed to run Linux on our systems gets submitted upstream and included in kernels, so whatever distribution customers use will "just work" on our systems.

Drivers, drivers, drivers

Your collegua Matt Domsch recently gave an interview to LinuxWorld. He mentioned that, especially on the servers, Dell selects and works with vendors on providing drivers for their hardware. How is this work progressing for end-user desktop and laptop hardware?

This is progressing very well so far. Many of the vendors that we work with on our server hardware are the same for our desktop/laptop hardware, so we already have a lot of the relationships in place, and those vendors work well with the Linux community already. There are still a few areas that need work, such as wireless support, but I'm hoping we'll be able to resolve those issues in the next few years.

Besides getting vendors to provide Linux support for their hardware, our biggest challenge is the timing of getting that support released to the Linux community. Hardware on desktop and laptop systems evolves very rapidly, so having support for that hardware in the upstream Linux kernel,, and in all of the distributions by the time we ship that hardware is very challenging. I think we'll be able to make a positive impact in driving the industry for both better and more timely hardware support for Linux, but this will most likely continue to be a challenge.

One of the key areas where there has been no open source alternative is high end video cards. This is about to change with ATI's recent announcement to start building open source drivers with the community. How has this news affected Dell? Will Dell work together with ATI on these new open source drivers?

We were extremely pleased by ATI's recent announcement. We have had many discussions with them over the years about open-sourcing their Linux drivers, and we will certainly support their efforts going forward. I expect us to work with them on these drivers, and hope that we'll be able to offer ATI video cards with our portables and desktops pre-installed with Linux in the future.

Is Dell also working with Nvidia or the Nouveau project on Nvidia drivers?

We have a strong relationship with Nvidia's Linux engineering team, and work closely with them to make sure their drivers work well on the cards we sell. This relationship goes back 7+ years for our Red Hat Linux program on Precision Workstations, and recently expanded this year to cover our Ubuntu Linux on Inspiron program as well. The main initiative we've been working on recently is to improve support in the Nvidia driver for suspend and hibernate support on laptops. We're not currently working with the Nouveau project, but we're certainly following that project with interest.

Looking forward

At the Linuxworld Conference in San Francisco, Kevin Kettler confirmed that Dell is working on a consumer PC that runs different versions of Linux and Windows at the same time through virtualisation. Can you tell us more about that?

Virtualization will be an important future focus area for Dell's product offerings, for both server and client systems. However, since Dell typically does not comment publicly on future product plans, I can't say more at this time.

What do you see for the future for Dell and Linux?

For the short term, I expect us to continue doing what we have been doing. That means continuing to support Red Hat and SUSE on PowerEdge servers worldwide, support Red Hat on our Precision Workstations worldwide, and deliver Ubuntu Linux on select consumer systems in select markets. We recently announced that we'll be supporting SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop on systems in China.

I also expect us to continue driving hardware vendors to provide Linux support, and to get that support submitted and accepted upstream as early as possible. Our (never ending) goal is to have every Linux distribution "just work" on all of our systems, and that will continue to be the primary focus of our Linux engineering teams here at Dell.

In the coming years, expect to see a growing focus on virtualization for Dell. Linux virtualization technologies such as Xen or KVM are becoming more and more popular on the server side, and I expect these to become popular on the desktop side as well.

Follow Up

Systems that "just work" with Linux—any Linux—and fully powered by open source drivers. It's certainly a laudable goal for Dell and with ATI building an open source driver for their graphics cards and breaking the last barrier, it has also become a very attainable goal. It's hard to look into the future but if Dell's servers are anything to go by, they will make it happen.

From personal experience I know that their servers "just work" with Linux, and for the most part their desktops and laptops do as well. If you read any review of installing Linux on Dell machines that were sold as Windows machines, you can see that it's mostly small things that do not work right away. Wireless out-of-the-box, a few touchpad problems, suboptimal screen resolution on non-standard sized monitors and laptop hibernation. Certainly rough edges but nothing that currently cannot be fixed after installation and nothing major that will require rocket science to make it work out-of-the-box.

Whatever the future brings for Dell, it certainly has Linux in it. Thanks again to John Hull for agreeing to the interview and taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.

» Read more about: Story Type: Interview, LXer Features; Groups: Community, Linux, Ubuntu

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