The Linux Hardware Puzzle
Written by Michael Larabel in Software on 4 June 2007. Page 1 of 1. Add A Comment

With Phoronix turning three years old tomorrow I thought this would be a good time to share with all of you what had led Phoronix to where it is today and the direction that it is headed into for the future. There's still much work left to be accomplished, but we long to see the day when the Linux and Solaris hardware experience to upgrade a PC, build a new PC, or to buy a PC will be carefree and you largely won't need to worry about any kernel panics, disk controller issues, or other problems due to your choice of hardware. In the past few years we have seen terrific strides made specifically by Linux developers in new hardware support, but it still largely remains a puzzle for alternative OS users to find hardware that is fully compatible with their operating system of choice.

When starting Phoronix in 2004 I seen three basic paths that Linux users could take to find out about Linux hardware compatibility and installation/setup. The first approach was looking at hardware compatibility lists, secondly looking at a forum or mailing list, and finally just outright purchasing the hardware and hope it works. With the exception of what we provide at Phoronix (or occasionally what some other technology web sites will also provide), these options more or less remain the same. For those not purchasing hardware from Sun Microsystems, Solaris users also face the same set of challenges but to some extent is even more difficult due to the lack of enthusiast resources on the Internet.

The problem that I saw at the time with hardware compatibility lists, and still largely see today, is that they are fragmented. There are Linux compatibility lists for specific distributions, specific software projects (such as ALSA), and then the "generic" ones. To a new Linux user this can be daunting to search through all of these different lists -- that is if they are even aware such lists do exist. With such lists the user is then relying upon the user-submitted content. In many cases these list items are reliable, but they are dependent upon the user having submitted the content accurately (other than just saying "it works") and still in a majority of the cases their results are bound to a single hardware configuration and single distribution until another user comes along and appends additional information.

With no centralized system to crawl all of these different hardware lists (well, other than Google and search engines), the time alone to just extensively search the different lists can be exhausting. For Solaris I haven't found the compatibility lists to have the same problems as Linux. The x86/x64 Solaris compatibility list is managed through Sun, which eliminates the fragmentation of different lists at different locations, but at the same time the Solaris list isn't very extensive. At the time of writing there are only 1561 components listed and 883 computer systems of which there are only 44 motherboards and 97 video cards.

What all of these lists also lack is any structured performance metrics. Sure, the list may say the hardware works under Linux (or Solaris) but for instance they would not know that at the time a $300 or $400 graphics card would perform about the same speed of a sub-$100 graphics card from another manufacturer. Granted for user-powered compatibility lists this isn't practical as each user has a different system and is likely testing the system in a different way.

For the second option of mailing lists and forums, the user must usually wait a period of time for a response. The responses then range from "it works" or "it's broken" to various obscenities about binary blobs. It is unstructured. In a majority of the cases the content on the forums are great, but there is usually a time delay and an uncertainty as to whether the person answering your question will provide a one word answer or explain in detail what works and what doesn't. But don't get me wrong, forums can be a great resource. A BugZilla is also another means for trying to determine hardware compatibility. For Solaris users outside of our Solaris forum on the Phoronix Forums, we really haven't found any other forum dedicated to the discussion of desktop hardware for Solaris enthusiasts.

As for the third option, well, it's a gamble for the end-user. Linux and Solaris hardware support has improved a great deal since Phoronix started out in 2004, but still we frequently come across motherboards and other system components that face compatibility issues. If the device doesn't work for the user they are then forced to wait for the support or try different configurations, attempt to return or exchange the product, or bite the bullet at a loss.

What we also have available today are more computers that ship with Linux pre-installed. There are a variety of smaller companies such as LIX Systems, Mad Tux, and System76 that ship desktops and notebooks with various flavors of Linux. Most recently Dell had announced three Ubuntu PCs. While Dell now has one notebook and two desktop computers for sale in the United States with Ubuntu 7.04, there's much room for improvement in this area. Each step counts, but the leap will come when Linux is shipped by tier-one manufacturers on the same day as new Microsoft Windows PCs.

While this is a simplified version of the real problem that exists, there's much room left for improvement to help out Linux desktop users. Outside of publishing roughly 250 in-house hardware articles per year that look at a variety of products under Linux (and now Solaris), there are several other paths that we are actively exploring in order to provide the most accurate information on Linux/Solaris hardware compatibility and performance. Specifically to look at some of the problems that are mentioned in this article, we have been working on developing a meta-search system to crawl through different compatibility lists and other resources to allow any end-user to efficiently and effectively search through structured listings, but that is still a while out from being ready for an official announcement. In the next six to twelve months we are also looking to expand into other forms of media such as professionally produced audio and/or video podcasts that will cover topics central to Linux and Solaris desktop users. With our reviews and other articles we are also continually refining our testing process to incorporate additional distributions and benchmarks to further enhance our level of testing. There's also a few other endeavors that are still in the planning stages that we are not yet prepared to announce.

You may share your thoughts on the hardware challenges that exist for Linux users in the Phoronix Forums along with what else you would like to see from Phoronix.


About The Author
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Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 10,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.


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