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Dell launches Sputnik Linux Ultrabook

Beefy open-source machines on the way

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Apple landed an important punch against Microsoft some years back by becoming a popular platform among devs building new applications.

The resource-vampire Windows Vista, Microsoft’s effective hiatus on new releases, the power of MacBooks and rise of the web as a runtime saw Microsoft lose its grip on an influential and demanding segment of the IT community.

Now Dell’s making a play for the demographic that was lured by Apple, but it’s not pushing Windows 8 or even Windows 7 on its hardware – it’s promoting Ubuntu.

Dell today released Project Sputnik, a Dell XPS 13 tuned to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS that had been unveiled as a Skunkworks project in May.

Sputnik features an Intel i7 CPU, 8GB RAM and 256GB memory, a basic set of drivers, tools and utilities and is priced $1,549 with a year of support. The machine is only on sale in the US and Canada, but will go international next year.

Standard price for the regular machine from Dell is $1,499; you can compare processor, memory and CPU with the relevant MacBooks from Apple here. As ever, Dell undercuts Cupertino on the price, so the question is do you want to splash out a little more for a PC running Ubuntu instead of Windows for dev?

Barton George, Dell’s web vertical sector director, who initiated Sputnik, said the company is looking at expanding with a “beefier” platform option for devs. “The XPS 13 is perfect for those who want an ultra light and mobile system but we have heard from quite a few who would also like an offering that was more workstation-like with a bigger screen and more RAM,” he said in a statement.

Sputnik is part product and part experiment, with Dell reversing the standard OEM cookie-cutter approach to knocking out PCs by talking to devs and crafting software.

Attention was paid to making sure the XPS 13 drivers worked with Linux out of the box, with efforts to lock down Wi-Fi, screen brightness and touchpad and multi-touch support. As software packages go, Sputnik has a basic install image here.

Dell has departed from the norm by working with devs to build a profile tool and cloud launcher, which lets users build and install their own custom, web-centric development environment. In the past, IDE tools have tried to force devs into their own version of some kind of a fully equipped programming cockpit.

The profile tools and cloud launcher are open-source projects on github.

The profile tools give developers access to profiles for things like Ruby and Android, letting you craft your own development environment and chains of tools. The Cloud launcher lets you build simulate cloud environments on the laptop and then upload them using Ubuntu’s JuJu. Ubuntu supports OpenStack for cloud dev and run time, and the cloud platform is also supported by Dell.

George said the idea was to conduct Project Sputnik out in the open, soliciting and leveraging direct input from developers via the Project Sputnik StormSession, blog comments, and threads on the Sputnik tech centre forum for the Sputnik beta program. “It was the tremendous interest in the beta program that convinced us to take Project Sputnik from pilot to product,” George said.

George has a history of trying to make hardware companies more attractive to devs – he was on the community side at Sun Microsystems before it was swallowed by Oracle. Dell has worked with Ubuntu shop Canonical to iron out the driver-Ubuntu wrinkles on Sputnik.

Sun got open-source and Linux love following a torturous battle with its Solaris soul and a recognition its server business was in decline. Web and developers offered a hope, but it was a hope that never materialised financially for Sun’s server sales.

There’s no hint of an expectation that Sputnik will help Dell’s server sales, nor is this being pushed as the equivalent of the year of the Linux desktop. Dell is not going big on Ubuntu on Ultrabooks, continuing its caution of the past, where it has offered Linux on just a tiny number of relatively low-specced laptops subject to demand.

This was a skunkworks project whose life George had to lobby for inside Dell.

Dell, it seems, is trying to identify the right machine for the right market. Whether that will lead to easing out Apple as the dev's choice, changing the way it builds PCs into something more collaborative or even circuitously floating more OpenStack clouds running on Dell hardware is a work in progress. ®

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