Austin Power

If you thought Dell Computer Corp. was all about Windows, think again. Michael Dell gives us the inside scoop on his company's Linux strategy.
Dell Opener

The word on the street at Dell’s Austin, TX headquarters is that there’s a new Linux evangelist working for the company, and his name is Michael Dell. Though the company’s reputation is as a tried and true partner of Microsoft, Corp., Dell is now starting to show the first signs of seriously supporting an operating system that comes from outside of Redmond, WA. And why not? Unlike competitors Sun, Compaq, HP, or IBM, Dell is not burdened by having to support a legacy Unix, and if the company wants to catch up with Compaq in the lucrative Intel server market, Linux may be just the ticket. Michael Dell invited Linux Magazine Publisher Adam Goodman and Executive Editor Robert McMillan for a chat in his Austin offices last May.

Linux Magazine: When did you first hear about Linux?

Michael Dell: I don’t really remember when I first heard about it. I can tell you when we first got serious about it as a company.

We have this thing called “Ask Dudley,” which is an online tool that customers use to get technical questions answered — you can ask it a natural-language technical question like, “How do I get my modem to work?” Or “Why doesn’t this driver work correctly?” Or something like that. Basically it does word association; it takes a word, another word, and comes up with what it thinks the answers might be to the question. One of the most interesting things to look at is “What are the words that people are asking questions about that we don’t have any answers to?” A couple of years ago, the number one word was “Linux.” If you went to our site at that time and you searched for Linux, there was nothing there. So we said, “We’d better get serious about this real quick because obviously a lot of our customers are asking about Linux and we’re not doing anything to help them.”

Then I started going out on the Net and searching for “Dell and Linux,” “Optiplex and Linux” “Dimension and Linux,” “Inspiron and Linux,” “Precision and Linux,” and Boom! You’d see hundreds of thousands of user who had figured out how to use our products with Linux, and we hadn’t done anything to help those people either. So, we knew there was clearly a market here and we needed to do a better job of catering to that market. At the same time, we started to have more and more inquiries from customers: the scientific community, the technical community, dot com customers, small businesses, a few large customers. So we got more serious about it.

LM: Did you actually take a look at the technology?

Dell: Yeah. I have a little lab next to my office here, and I got a desktop PC and installed Red Hat Linux on it. I played around with it a little bit.

LM: What got your attention?

Dell: Anytime you have something that is that interesting to enough of our customers, you seek to understand it. What is it? Why are people using it? What are they doing this for? It’s also one of these things where if you don’t shift the way the organization is thinking, it might not get there all by itself, and you don’t want to have to wait another six months before people figure it out, or have our competitors go first. Why would we want that? So if we think this is going to happen or is already happening, let’s help it happen or make it happen a little faster.

The existence of proprietary operating systems — specifically proprietary Unix operating systems — for us is not a good thing.

LM: So what have you done to make that happen? How have you changed your organization?

Dell: First of all, we asked the question, “Gee what are we doing to support our customers with Linux?” for each of our product organizations, and put resources in place and built relationships with companies like Red Hat, TurboLinux and Linuxcare. We’ve made investments in a number of companies through Dell Ventures. We’ve, in a sense, given any of the permission it might have needed to happen. It was already happening, but we just weren’t really recognizing it; we weren’t giving it the attention it needed. And by giving it a little more attention, now we’ve rolled out the red carpet for the Linux users and said, “Yes you can come here. This is a welcome place for you. We’re going to take care of you, we’re going to support you, we’re going to make products that work with Linux and we’re going to do our best to be the best Linux hardware provider there is.”

LM: So what is the opportunity for Dell? Does Linux simply represent the commoditization of the operating system market? Or does it represent something broader?

Dell: I think open source is a powerful legitimate shift in the software development model that has quite massive ramifications, particularly when you think about the globalization of markets and of the resources and talents that are out there anywhere in the world. From our vantage point, we’re interested in having the broadest market we can have exposure to. The existence of proprietary operating systems — specifically proprietary Unix operating systems — for us is not a good thing. We don’t have a proprietary Unix, unlike most of our competitors. Sun, IBM, HP and Compaq all have their own version of Unix.

Actually, we used to have our own Dell version of Unix back in the late 1980′s, so we’re not totally brain-dead when it comes to this stuff. But of course, that was really a bad idea and didn’t really go anywhere, so we killed that. We’re not interested in having those proprietary Unixes succeed and to the extent that Linux becomes the preferred alternative to a proprietary Unix, and an alternative to Windows, that’s a great outcome for Dell.

LM: So does Dell need to ramp itself up as a Unix company then?

Dell: There are a number of things we’re doing. Obviously we’re building products to cater to this market that are already well-suited to this market, whether its rack-optimized appliance servers, desktops or notebooks. We selected individual configurations in each of those product lines that we think cater to the Linux market and certified those and made those available for “quantity: 1″ end-user purchases. We’ve put support in place; we’re building a dedicated Linux support queue for customers who call us, just as they would if they had Novell or they had Windows. We’ve got relationships with various [Linux] companies. We’ve got an alliance that we’re cooking up with Red Hat that I think is going to be very powerful. In the Asia pacific market, we’re working with TurboLinux. We’re doing factory installation, and I think in general we’re helping to create the market and — contrasting where we were a few years ago — we’re making it easy for customers to buy Linux from Dell and buy products that are Linux-friendly from Dell and to use them and get them supported as opposed to doing nothing about it.

LM: Does Linux represent an opportunity on the level of what the Internet represented to you?

Dell: I think that remains to be seen. If you’d asked me four years ago, “What is the Internet going to mean to your business?” I would have given you a four-year-ago view which would be very different from today’s view because it’s evolved so much and so dramatically. We don’t really know how far or how fast this is going to go, but we’re perfectly willing to let it go as far and as fast as it wants to go. That’s essentially the essence of Dell: We provide what our customers want to buy and that’s our business model.

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Why the Desktop Has a Chance

LM: Do you have any concerns about Linux’s future?

Dell: From what I’ve seen so far, I think that customers have gone into this understanding [that there are] risks and knowing that that’s part of the environment. They see [the issues surrounding Linux] more as a strength in the community than as a weakness. That has not really been an issue. The large customers that have adopted Linux with Dell have tended to lock down on what it is that they want to use it for and in what conditions. And that’s worked just fine. But it’s not really our job to go to customers and say, “Well you should do this because this is going to be good for you, or you should do this because this is going to be bad for you.” We are providing what we believe our customers want.

LM: Have you spent much time with Linux developers? For example, have you met Linus Torvalds?

Dell: Yes.

LM: What was your meeting like?

Dell: It was a quick meeting, not a really substantive meeting. We’ve been working with the Collab.net guys a little bit. We’re going to be doing something with them.

LM: So you’re looking to build a community, then? One of the things that Dell has yet to do is create a community around its products.

Dell: We agree. We plan to do something about it, too.

LM: How would you do that?

Dell: Stay tuned.

LM: OK, how much time do you personally spend thinking about or dealing with Linux these days?

Dell: I don’t really have a number that comes to mind for you. Clearly, whenever we’re having our discussions with product teams or teams that are focused on unique kinds of customers, we talk about market trends and operating trends — “What are you seeing?” “What are customers asking for?” “What are customers buying?” And when I’m out in the field talking to customers, I spend a fair amount of time understanding what our customers are doing, why they’re doing it and where they’re going.

Actually there’s a lot of potential in the desktop. And while today that’s a fairly unpopular idea, I think that the Internet architecture presents some compelling reasons why a Linux desktop could potentially emerge as a more viable alternative.

LM: Where do you think it’s going? In five years, what do you think people will think of when they hear “Linux?”

Dell: Actually there’s a lot of potential in the desktop. And while today that’s a fairly unpopular idea, I think that the Internet architecture presents some compelling reasons why a Linux desktop could potentially emerge as a more viable alternative. We sell to a lot of higher education institutions, and when you go to places like UNC [the University of North Carolina], you can see that close to 15 percent of their users are using Linux on the desktop. And as you have a more IP-centric computing model and applications are distributed, there’s more and more a possibility that that can occur.

LM: Do you think that’ll come about in a Larry Ellison-type “NC-take-2″ Linux-based personal appliance?

Dell: No. As you get more bandwidth the computing power will expand both at the edge of the network and at the center. Larry’s model is that it expands at the center, but the edge gets less and less powerful. I think that actually both will get more and more powerful and as you get a faster connection to the Internet, the data streams become more and more complex and there’s richer and better data that gets processed and dealt with at the client. You can kind of see this a little bit if you talk to people who have DSL connections or cable modems in the home and you say to them, “Now that you’ve got this really fast connection, is your computer fast enough? Will you use a slower computer now that you have this really fast connection?” Nobody wants to go to a slower computer now that they have a fast connection; they want a faster computer because the bottleneck shifts. Right now for a lot of users — at least in small businesses and at home — the bottleneck is the line, not the computing power, but when you get a fast connection, the bottleneck shifts back to the computer itself.

LM: What about Linux do you think makes it particularly competitive as a client OS?

Dell: I think a lot of that still has to be answered. This is kind of speculative, and I don’t know whether it will occur. I’ll also tell you that our business model is not dependent on it occurring, but if it does occur, we’re just as ready for it, if not more ready, than others. Dell is in the number one market share position for business desktops and notebooks in the world, so if it is going to happen, we need to be ready to support it.

Clearly you’ve got to get some of the office productivity applications — the mails and the office-type applications, and today that is not at all where Linux is playing. Where we’re seeing Linux for the most part is in the dedicated appliance server and in the N+1 kind of server architectures with service providers. And service providers are incredibly important to Dell because they aggregate demand on behalf of thousands or tens of thousands or millions of users. So if somebody is providing an application over the Internet, instead of that application sitting on the individual client devices for 100,000 users, it’s sitting on a big massive array of servers, and we want those to be our servers and our storage.

LM: Do you see what’s happening with Linux today as similar to the PC revolution back in the days when you started Dell?

Dell: I think it definitely has the potential for a lot of change — and disruptive change. Not so much on our business models, but on other business models. The whole open source movement has the potential to really change the way value is created and distributed in the software industry — the speed at which applications and tools are developed and deployed. And Dell’s the perfect hardware platform to do that on.

LM: What company do you think will be the most adversely affected by Linux?

Dell: That’s a really good question. I’m not totally sure. I’ll give you two choices: Sun or Microsoft. Let’s take Sun for a second. I happen to think that Sun is incredibly vulnerable to Linux, and the reason is that their whole strategy is based on Solaris. And for them to embrace Linux… they can’t. They’ve got an incredible investment in this proprietary software platform and hardware stack, and I think that’s going to become increasingly difficult to maintain. If you look at the workstation market, we just passed Sun in the workstation market. Well two or three years ago if you had said “Dell’s going to pass Sun in the workstation market” people would say “You’re crazy. That’s never going to happen.” Well we’re going to pass Sun in the server business too, and we’re not going to do it with a proprietary Unix. Linux is a big part of the strategy.

LM: And how do you think Microsoft will be affected?

Dell: The question really is does Linux create new users or does it take users away from Sun or Microsoft. I’m not sure I’d know the answer. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I really care, as long as they use Dell.

Robert McMillan is executive editor for Linux Magazine. He can be reached at bob@linux-mag.com.

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