July 29, 2008

FSF works with Los Alamos Computers to provide free computers

Author: Bruce Byfield

Finding hardware that works with GNU/Linux is hard enough. But if you also want a completely free system -- one that requires no proprietary drivers or firmware to run -- then the task is almost impossible. While resources like OpenPrinting and the SANE database for scanners offer guides to simple functionality, advice on free systems is almost non-existent. To fill this gap, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has been developing its own hardware list, and, as the next logical step, has been working with Los Alamos Computers (LAC) to develop a line of free (as in speech) computers pre-installed with GNU/Linux.

The FSF hardware list began several months ago, and is maintained by project administrator John Sullivan. Progress is slow, because no hardware is listed until it is tested by either FSF employees or volunteers running a free distribution such as gNewSense. Also, Sullivan says, "Sometimes, the manufacturer will change the chipset without changing the packaging or the model number, and people wind up with something that doesn't actually work. It requires a lot of updating."

Sullivan first heard about LAC when FSF supporters suggested linking to the company on the hardware list. The FSF had been interested in pre-loaded free systems ever since Dell started offering Ubuntu on some systems last year, and was even considering offering its own custom systems, but decided that working with an existing manufacturer was "a better option. We want to gt these machines in at a lot of places," Sullivan says.

The only problem was that, although LAC had almost eight years' experience selling computers pre-installed with GNU/Linux, "at that time they weren't quite selling free systems," Sullivan explains. "So I wrote to them asking if they would be interested in taking a few additional steps by providing a page on their site that would emphasize freedom by using the GNU name and provide fully free systems. They'd been thinking of doing that for a while, and our call was the motivation they needed to get things going."

Offering free systems

In many ways, LAC was an ideal partner for the FSF initiative. Founded by several former employees of Los Alamos National Laboratories, LAC first established itself by working with Eric Raymond on some of the Linux Journal's early "Ultimate Linux Box" articles and providing a machine for Linus Torvalds around the turn of the millennium. Specializing in machines for researchers and software developers, LAC has since carved out a small but respectable niche for itself, with over 98% of its sales consisting of GNU/Linux systems.

"About two percent of our systems are dual-boot," says Gary Sandine, LAC CTO. "But Windows-only is extremely rare. If someone comes to us looking for a Windows computer, we'll actually send them to Dell or some place else."

Sandine had first discussed building free systems with Richard Stallman five years ago, and LAC was already offering gNewSense as one of its options when Sullivan approached him, so he needed little persuading. The LAC web page now lists the option of buying a free system prominently on its home page, and the company's site includes a section for free systems. LAC plans to donate an unspecified percentage of its profit from GNU systems to the FSF.

The LAC systems feature Shuttle workstations and Lenovo Thinkpad laptops, as well as a limited number of servers; the company will also build a custom system according to customer specifications.

For all types of computers, LAC generally works with onboard Intel video cards, which Sandine describes as the best solution for those who want a free system. Most of the other hardware requires no modifications, but, for laptops, LAC will replace the software modem with a PCMCIA hardware modem and add a PCMCIA wireless card that is natively supported by GNU/Linux. All the free systems use gNewSense, although LAC's regular line also includes a choice of distributions that includes CentOS, Debian, Fedora, and Ubuntu. Since about 80% of LAC pre-installations are Debian or Ubuntu, gNewSense, an Ubuntu-derivative, is a familiar environment for the company's technical support.

The one thing that currently stops LAC systems from being entirely free is their BIOSes. However, LAC is experimenting with coreboot (formerly LinuxBIOS), and Sandine says that LAC's first free BIOS offering, on a server, "should be released any day now." He adds that site visitors express a strong interest in machines with a free BIOS, and that LAC would like to extend the offering to its entire product line if possible.

Free systems in the marketplace

Sandine admits that he is not sure how popular LAC's free systems will become. While LAC uses the term "GNU/Linux" in preference to "Linux," Sandine says, "I'm not sure that some people don't think that's something different than a Linux system." In the past, he says, using the term actually seems to have decreased LAC's business. In addition, he suspects that only experienced users understand the distinctions being made when a system is described as being completely free.

"I'm not sure how the market is for the GNU stuff," Sandine says frankly. Since LAC started offering it, he adds, "We've seen a lot of activity, and we've spent a lot of cycles talking about it, but not much has happened as far as sales go."

Still, Sandine says that LAC plans to continue to offer its FSF-inspired systems. "We're happy to sell systems with 100% free software, and we plan on continuing to do it. Our business has gotten to the point where we can just do it because we want to. And if people want reassurance that they have a system that is 100% free,then we can help them do that."


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