Desktop Linux: Certified, Not Certifiable

A lot of hardware vendors are jumping on the Linux bandwagon these days. Some of their pre-installed Linux systems are easier to find than others -- and some you might wish you hadn't found at all.
A lot of hardware vendors are jumping on the Linux bandwagon these days. Some of their pre-installed Linux systems are easier to find than others -- and some you might wish you hadn't found at all.The problem is that while pre-installed Linux options get a lot more support -- and a lot more marketing -- than ever before, these systems still tend to get lost amidst a vendor's Windows-based offerings. And while it can be tough even to piece together one vendor's desktop Linux lineup, trying to compare products from multiple vendors is truly a frustrating experience.

But finding systems with Linux pre-installed is just half the battle -- and it's not the most important half. There's also the question of just how dedicated a vendor is to ensuring that its Linux systems work out of the box with a particular distro, a specific kernel release, and a unique hardware configuration.

Sure, it's obvious that some solid, up-front hardware support R&D -- especially driver development and testing -- will save vendors a fortune in back-end support costs. Then again, if it's such an obvious point, why do so few of them get it?

As a Linux PC buyer, one of the best ways to tackle this challenge is to approach it from a different angle: Start with a list of OEM system models certified to work with a particular desktop Linux distro.

If you're looking for a great example of how this process should work, Ubuntu's certified hardware list is one of the best. Ubuntu isn't the only high-profile desktop Linux vendor to certify its distros on OEM hardware, but it definitely does the best job of organizing and presenting its certification list in a usable format.

(Red Hat's list of certified systems and peripherals is easy to find, but it's beside the point here, since the company focuses almost entirely on its Linux server business. Novell's Suse division offers a desktop Linux distro, and the company apparently offers a certification program for third-party vendors, but good luck actually finding a list of systems certified to work with Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop.)

It's fairly easy to find sources of user-contributed hardware compatibility information for other Linux distros. The folks at PCLinuxOS, for example, maintain an extremely useful hardware support database covering hundreds of systems, system components, and peripherals. The problem, of course, is that user-contributed reviews typically lack either the technical rigor or the consistency to match a professional hardware-certification program.

This is why Canonical's (the for-profit company that manages the Ubuntu project) hardware certification program sets such an impressive example. Here is the company's own description of how its process works for OEMs:

Certification of a new model of hardware (server, desktop or laptop) is done by Canonical engineers and the Ubuntu community. Each aspect of the hardware is tested, and results (success or failure) are documented. To the extent that open source drivers for a component in that model exist, the certification process will result in complete support for that component in the certified releases of Ubuntu. To the maximum extent possible using available open source drivers we will ensure that these components are automatically detected, and configured correctly by a standard Ubuntu installation.

In some cases, even where open source drivers exist, it will not be possible to detect and configure the hardware automatically. In these cases, for an additional fee, custom software and custom install images for the two certified Ubuntu releases will be provided. These install images will be specific to those models, and will install and configure the operating system for that hardware.

For an additional fee, that will depend on the nature of the hardware, the drivers and auxiliary software, we will also work with binary-only vendor-provided drivers. We can only commit to referring support requests for these drivers to the vendors that provide them.

In order to pass certification the following systems (if applicable) must work:

* Video display detection, configuration and acceleration. External display (laptops) * Sound card detection, and automatic level setting * Hard drive, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM and RAID adapters * Modem, network card and wifi adapter

The certification testing process will cover every device present in the system configuration, and a full report generated and provided to the submitter. Where possible we will work with manufacturers to ensure that additional devices are fully supported : again this is dependant on the availability of open source drivers.

In every case, the result of a certification is documentation on the Ubuntu web site covering the known certified state of that model of hardware.

Canonical does a couple of things here that are really worth noting. First, while the Ubuntu community participates in (and plays a crucial role in) certification testing, Canonical's engineers manage the process. As a result, Canonical has a very significant stake in the quality of its certifications, since the company -- and not the user community -- is ultimately responsible for sloppy or inconsistent hardware testing.

Second, Canonical doesn't just identify potential driver problems or other hardware compatibility issues, it works with OEMs to fix them -- and then guarantees that a certified configuration will work across multiple Ubuntu releases. Companies willing to work with Canonical to fix these issues are clearly more deserving of your business than those that walk away from the certification process empty-handed.

Like I said, however, even the toughest certification process is a waste of time if nobody can find the results. And ultimately, it's this combination of execution and follow-through that really makes Ubuntu's certification program an outstanding example of how to turn the "just work" philosophy into more than a bunch of hot air.