Blog archive

Do Devs Need Custom Linux Laptops? Dell Thinks So

Rumors began circulating earlier this year that Dell might be developing a laptop specifically designed for developers. Then Barton George, Dell's Web Vertical Director, began blogging about Sputnik, a "scrappy skunkworks project" that would combine the XPS 13-inch laptop with the Ubuntu 12.04 Linux distribution.

About a week ago, George blogged that "Sputnik has landed!" The Austin, TX-based computer maker is now offering a Developer Edition of the machine based on "community input" that "pushed it from an exploratory project to an official product."

I talked with George recently about Dell's decision to create a developer-focused Linux laptop using their popular XPS-13 Ultrabook. He first clarified what Dell means by "Web vertical," his bailiwick.

"That's everybody from the startups in the dorm rooms to the Facebooks and the Googles who use the Web as a platform," he said. "In that space, we believe the developers are the ones who really call the shots. And we asked ourselves, what can we do to make their lives easier?"

George credits Stephen O'Grady, principal analyst and co-founder of RedMonk, for giving him the idea to build an Ubuntu-based laptop. He initially doubted that the idea would fly at Dell (he couldn't come up with big sales predictions for such a targeted device), but it happened that Michel Coté, O'Grady's former colleague at RedMonk, now director of cloud strategy at Dell, was involved with an intra-company incubation fund. George pitched him the idea, and they were off and running.

Dell worked closely with Canonical, the chief commercial sponsor of Ubuntu, on the project. Canonical added the idea of connecting the laptop to the cloud, so that users could develop on LXC containers, replicate the environment on the actual client, and then jettison it to the cloud via the JuJu service deployment and orchestration framework. (Ubuntu's LXC is a userspace tool that controls the kernel namespaces and c-group features to create system or application containers.)

George liked that idea too, because Dell has stepped into the cloud via OpenStack, an open source project made up of several interrelated projects focused on delivering components for a cloud infrastructure solution. Dell is on a list of 145 participating companies that includes AMD, Cisco, Citrix, Intel and Microsoft.

"We suddenly saw this as an end-to-end solution, rather than a point project," George said.

The company unveiled the Sputnik Project in May at the Ubuntu developer conference in Oakland, Calif.

"We were blown away by the response," George recalls. "My blog post, where we announced it, has drawn 63,000 responses -- it normally gets about 500. We could see that we had struck a nerve."

When the company announced the beta program six months ago, it received 6,000 applications from around the world, George says.

Last week Dell officially launched the Dell XPS 13 Laptop, Developer Edition in the U.S. The company is billing it as a "client-to-cloud" laptop. It comes bundled with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, "augmented with the necessary hardware drivers and basic tools and utilities that support building, testing and producing applications." There's also a beta version of a JuJu cloud launcher and a profile tool meant to provide access to a library of profiles, such as Ruby, Android or JavaScript, "to quickly set up your development environments and tool chains." Both are community projects posted on GitHub.

"A lot of what we're trying to accomplish here with these tools is support for DevOps," Coté said. "To me, DevOps is largely about making development more efficient and getting to production sooner, and tightening that feedback loop developers have between idea, code, and deploy."

George added that Sputnik is not intended to be a "Mac killer." Apple's pricey laptop is a favorite among codederos. But there is in this market a certain amount of low-hanging fruit, he said -- developers who would prefer to be working on open systems, for example, but opt in to proprietary technologies to get something they don't have to fiddle with.

"For that segment, we're offering a compelling alternative," he said.

Much more information about the Sputnik Project is available on the Dell Web site and George's blog.


Posted by John K. Waters on December 5, 2012